Women’s rights organizations have stated that there is a “desperate need for legal reform” following the imprisonment of a mother-of-three who obtained abortion pills illegally in order to terminate her pregnancy when the area was under lockdown.
After admitting to illegally arranging her own abortion while she was between 32 and 34 weeks pregnant, Carla Foster, 44, received a 28-month enhanced sentence.
She called the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) during lockdown in 2020 and lied about how far along she was in her pregnancy, according to evidence presented at Stoke-on-Trent Crown Court. The BPAS then gave her the medications.
The prosecution said Foster made a number of internet searches between February and May 2020, including “how to hide a pregnancy bump”, “how to have an abortion without going to the doctor” and “how to lose a baby at six months”.
Foster first faced a charge of endangering children and entered a not guilty plea.
She later entered a plea of guilty to a different accusation under section 58 of the Offenses Against Person Act 1861, procuring an abortion by giving medications or employing devices, which was accepted by the prosecution.
Women’s organizations, like the Centre for Women’s Justice (CWJ), whichs director Harriet Wistrich questioned if it was in the public interest to prosecute the mother, have reacted negatively to the sentencing.
She said: “What possible purpose is served in criminalising and imprisoning this woman, when at most she needs better access to healthcare and other support?
“She is clearly already traumatised by the experience and now her children will be left without their mother for over a year.
“When most forms of violence against women and girls go unpunished this sentence confirms our very worst fears about contemporary attitudes to women’s basic human rights and an utterly misdirected criminal justice system.”
Chiara Capraro, director of Amnesty International UK’s women’s human rights campaign, called the move to sue over an 1861 statute “shocking and quite frankly terrifying.”
She said: “Access to abortion is essential healthcare and should be managed as such.
“This is a tremendously sad story and underscores the desperate need for legal reform in relation to reproductive health.”
Clare Murphy, chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), declared that “no woman can ever go through this again” and urged MPs to defend women in dire situations so they are never in danger of being imprisoned.
She said: “Vulnerable women in the most incredibly difficult of circumstances deserve more from our legal system.”
The Crown Prosecution Service said the case was “complex and traumatic”, but added it has a “duty” to ensure laws are “properly considered and applied when making difficult charging decisions”.
A CPS spokesperson said: “The defendant pleaded guilty to one count of unlawfully administering a poison or noxious thing with intent to procure a miscarriage, and has now been sentenced by the court.”
Health organization representatives wrote to the court in advance of the sentencing to request a non-custodial penalty.
In a letter, representatives of medical organizations including the Faculty of Sexual & Reproductive Healthcare, the Royal College of Midwives, and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists expressed concern that Foster’s imprisonment would discourage future women from using telemedicine to obtain abortions.
The letter also warned that it might discourage women who are past due to give birth from seeking medical attention or from being forthcoming with doctors.
In response, Mr Justice Pepperall said in his sentencing remarks it would have been better if “the letter had not been written at all.”
He said: “The letter also has the capacity to be seen as special pleading by those who favour wider access to abortions and is, in my judgment, just as inappropriate as it would be for a judge to receive a letter from one of the groups campaigning for more restrictive laws and which might seek to argue that it is important that the law is upheld by passing a deterrent sentence.”
Foster, who had three sons before falling pregnant once again in 2019, was “embarrassed” and didn’t know how far along she was when she went to the doctor about her pregnancy, the court was told.
On May 6, 2020, she spoke with a nurse practitioner at BPAS, a clinic that provides abortion services. Based on her responses to inquiries about her pregnancy, it was estimated that she was only about seven weeks along, and she was issued abortion pills by mail.
The child’s gestational age at birth was confirmed by a post-mortem study to be between 32 and 34 weeks.
Her stillbirth and mother usage of abortion-inducing medications were listed as causes of death.
Foster will serve the first 14 months of her sentence behind bars and the remaining time on parole.
Mr Justice Pepperall said: “This case concerns one woman’s tragic and unlawful decision to obtain a very late abortion.
“The balance struck by the law between a woman’s reproductive rights and the rights of her unborn foetus is an emotive and often controversial issue. That is, however, a matter for Parliament and not for the courts.”