Ministers are facing calls to “step up” and decriminalise abortion in Great Britain after a woman was jailed for terminating her pregnancy, as an influential Labour MP said she hoped her party would act if it won power.
The call by Dame Diana Johnson, who previously tried to repeal the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act with a backbench bill, said ministers should act to change laws that were also having a “chilling” effect on doctors, midwives and others.
Caroline Nokes, the Conservative chair of the Commons women and equalities committee, said abortion legislation was “very out of date” and should be overhauled, after a woman was jailed for procuring drugs to induce an abortion after the legal limit.
There was outrage on Monday after the woman, a mother of three, was sentenced.
She received the medication under the “pills by post” scheme, which was introduced during the Covid pandemic for unwanted pregnancies up to 10 weeks, after a remote consultation.
The woman, 44, pleaded guilty in March under the Offences Against the Person Act and will serve half of her 28-month sentence in custody and the remainder under licence. She had originally pleaded not guilty to a charge of an offence of child destruction.
Nokes said the judge in the case had indicated he had believed there was a clear case for parliament to reconsider legislation surrounding abortion.
“I think he has a valid point. This is not something that has been debated in any great detail for many years now,” she told Radio 4’s World Tonight programme on Monday.
“And cases like this, although are tragic and thankfully very rare, throw into sharp relief that we are relying on legislation that is very out of date. It makes a case for parliament to start looking at this issue in detail.”
Speaking on Tuesday morning, Johnson said Great Britain as a whole had also fallen behind Northern Ireland, after MPs voted to liberalise abortion there, telling BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Society has moved on, healthcare has moved on, and I think parliament has a role now to look at reforming our abortion laws.”
There was a more cautious reaction from Lucy Powell, the shadow culture secretary, who told Sky News there was a need for “better guidance and clearer sentencing rules”.
A former chief crown prosecutor has said he would not have prosecuted the woman at the centre of the case, saying he would have factored in the “terrible choices” people were having to make during the pandemic.
Citing public feeling towards laws restricting abortions and her mitigating factors, Nazir Afzal told the Today programme: “Had I been involved, had I been doing this particular case, I would not have prosecuted it.”
The number of women and girls facing police investigations and the threat of life imprisonment under abortion laws has risen over the past three years, according to the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS).
In 2022, a woman who used abortion medication in a failed attempt to end her own pregnancy was reported to the police by her medical team.
In the case of the woman jailed on Monday, prosecutors said she had knowingly misled the BPAS by saying she was below the 10-week cutoff, when she believed she was about 28 weeks pregnant.
Doctors later concluded the foetus was from 32 to 34 weeks gestation (between seven and eight months) at the time of termination. In England, Scotland and Wales, abortion is generally legal up to 24 weeks but is carried out in a hospital or clinic after 10 weeks.
Stoke-on-Trent crown court heard how the woman had discovered she was pregnant in December 2019 before arranging a telephone consultation with BPAS in May 2020.