Criminalising women on abortion

Absence of prosecutions does not remove the Sword of Damocles that hangs over every woman faced with hugely difficult choices

 

Even in the highly charged US abortion debate the unconsionable idea of “punishing the woman” is politically explosive and sufficiently taboo to produce an about-turn even by Donald Trump. Trump, a matter of days ago, retreated within 24 hours after suggesting the US recriminalisation of abortion and a regime that would have “some sort of punishment” for women who seek them.

The rapid repudiation of his comments by all the presidential candidates and by most campaigners on both sides of the abortion argument saw Trump recharacterise his position as demanding punishment for the abortion provider, the doctor, alone.

It couldn’t happen in the US, but in Ireland, North and South, and in the UK to a more limited extent the that prospect, the criminalisation of women, remains entirely possible. On Monday the Belfast Crown Court gave a three-month suspended jail sentence to a 21-year-old woman who used abortion pills bought on the internet to terminate her 10-12-week old foetus because she could not afford the fare to Britain.

She pleaded guilty to two charges: namely procuring her own abortion by using a poison; and of supplying a poison with intent to procure a miscarriage, and was convicted under Section 58 of the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act which provides that “Every woman, being with child, who, with intent to procure her own miscarriage, shall unlawfully administer to herself any poison or other noxious thing ... shall be guilty of felony, and being convicted thereof shall be liable . . . to be kept in penal servitude for life . .”

A barrister for the woman told court that had his client lived in any other region of the UK, she would “not have found herself before the courts”, but in fact the 1967 UK act does not repeal the section, only provides exceptions to its application. And last year, in an admittedly very rare case, a 24-year-old Durham woman was jailed for two and a half years for using poison to terminate her late pregnancy.

In the Republic the 2013 Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act repealed the 1861 Act and specifically Section 58, but it provides that a woman can face up to 14 years in prison for a self-induced abortion – the Government’s only concession to public concerns about the criminalising women was an unusual special requirement of permission from the DPP to prosecute.

To date no woman has been charged in the Republic with having an abortion – either under the old act or its new iteration – a reality perhaps akin to the old Irish solution to an Irish problem and the blind eye turned for so long to travel on the ferry for the same purpose.

But the absence of prosecutions does not remove the Sword of Damocles that hangs over every woman faced with hugely difficult choices. The criminalisation of women involved in an abortion is not appropriate, is bad law, and should be repealed.

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