UK medics told not to report illegal abortions to police due to women being wrongly prosecuted

By Fatou Ferraro Mboup

Published Jan 22, 2024 at 02:02 PM

Reading time: 2 minutes

In a chilling revelation, the Royal College of Gynaecologists and Obstetricians (RCOG) has issued a stark warning to healthcare workers: do not report women to the police even if there’s suspicion they’ve illegally terminated their pregnancies. The reason? “Deeply traumatised” women are being prosecuted for abortions, and the RCOG is concerned. As stated by the BBC, recent cases reveal a surge in police investigations into abortions, raising unsettling questions about the fate of these women.

The RCOG’s cautionary guidance comes amid a disturbing rise in the number of prosecutions, prompting a closer look at the stories of these women and the legal intricacies surrounding their cases.

National Health Service (NHS) staff are authorised to breach confidentiality rules for potential crime reporting, but only when deemed to be “in the public interest.” However, the RCOG sternly asserts that it is never in the public interest to report women who have had abortions and has been emphatically calling for their protection.

The RCOG’s first-of-its-kind guidance mandates that healthcare workers must now justify any disclosure of patient data or face the chilling prospect of “potential fitness to practice proceedings.” The organisation has expressed deep concern over the escalating number of police investigations into abortions and pregnancy loss, raising alarms about the profound impact on “especially vulnerable” patients.

Speaking with the BBC, Doctor Jonathan Lord, RCOG’s medical director, stated: “A law that was originally designed to protect a woman is now being used against her. We have witnessed life-changing harm to women and their wider families as a direct result of NHS staff reporting women suspected of crimes, and we just don’t think that would happen in other areas of healthcare. We deal with the most vulnerable groups who may be concerned about turning to regulated healthcare at all, and we need them to trust us.”

In 2022, the number of suspected illegal abortions reported to police in England and Wales rose to 29, up from 16 in 2018. While abortions are legal in England if performed by a registered medical practitioner within the first 24 weeks of pregnancy, intentionally terminating a pregnancy after this period is illegal and carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act. The RCOG reveals that six women were prosecuted in England last year for suspected breaches of abortion law, a significant increase from the three cases in the previous two decades. Lord also noted that some investigations involved women experiencing late miscarriages or being further along in their pregnancy than they realised during terminations.

Remember the poignant stories of women like Carla Foster, imprisoned in 2020 for self-administering an abortion? And Bethany Cox, who only recently escaped a similar fate? These are not just cases, they are lives forever altered by a legal system that can’t comprehend these women’s struggles. The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) begrudgingly admits the rarity of such instances, urging a glimpse into the deeply personal circumstances before making charging decisions.

As healthcare workers potentially face consequences for sharing patient data, the RCOG stresses the need for a better understanding of confidentiality rules. It emphasises that some NHS staff may have unintentionally shared information with the police due to not fully grasping these rules. The guidance aims to rectify this issue and ensure that patients, particularly vulnerable groups, trust healthcare providers without fear of legal consequences.

The RCOG’s initiative resonates with a pressing demand for legal reforms safeguarding women who undergo abortions, emphasising the crucial necessity for a compassionate and supportive response to these cases. However, the government, while acknowledging the sensitivity of the issue, places the burden on individual MPs’ consciences rather than taking decisive action. As a woman, it’s disheartening to witness the hesitation in enacting changes that could shield women from undue legal scrutiny.

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