A woman was kept in police custody for 36 hours after having a stillbirth because of suspicions she had an abortion after the legal cut-off point, it has been claimed.
UK abortion providers, who supported the woman, denied she had flouted the legal deadline and warned the treatment she endured “should be unthinkable in a civilised society”, with “no conceivable” public interest in holding her.
They added that the woman has been under investigation for a year and a half, but still not charged with any crime.
Jonathan Lord, medical director of MSI Reproductive Choices, one of the UK’s leading abortion providers, told The Independent the woman unexpectedly delivered a stillborn foetus at home that was about 24 weeks old.
The woman, who was in her early forties, had the stillbirth last year after getting in touch with MSI Reproductive Choices to inquire about an unwanted pregnancy and abortion.
Dr Lord, the co-chair of the British Society of Abortion Care Providers, who shared the woman’s story with The Independent, said: “She was shocked to give birth due to not knowing how far along pregnant she was. She was admitted to hospital.
“Because healthcare colleagues were suspicious, and knew she had been in touch with us, an abortion provider, as she told them, they suspected her of having an illegal abortion and called the police. But she wasn’t over the limit for a legal abortion.
“The police arrested her in hospital. She stayed the night in hospital and then was discharged the following morning straight into police custody. It took them 36 hours to process her.”
Dr Lord said the experience of having an “extraordinarily unexpected” stillbirth before being taken into police custody during lockdown was “traumatic” and “distressing” for the woman who cannot be named to protect patient confidentiality.
Abortions can legally be carried out within the first 24 weeks of pregnancy in England, Scotland and Wales.
Dr Lord, a consultant gynaecologist at the Royal Cornwall Hospitals NHS Trust, said the patient had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as the police investigation remains active.
“She has still got PTSD,” he added. “Not from the event of the delivery, but from being labelled as a criminal and held in custody. She knows she is under investigation but does not know what for. The police confiscated her phone and laptop”.
Dr Lord, who contributed to drawing up the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) abortion care guideline and quality standards committees, added that he has access to the birth weight and measurements of the stillborn child and is confident it is under 24 weeks
He also gave the example of a young teenage girl they supported who was investigated by the police after she gave birth to a stillborn at 28 weeks of pregnancy last year.
It comes after Freedom of Information requests obtained via NationalWorld last week revealed at least 17 women have been investigated by police in England and Wales over the past eight years for having illegal abortions or trying to terminate pregnancies.
Dr Lord added: “There is no conceivable public interest in subjecting these women to the immense stress and trauma of knowing they could face long prison sentences for having lost their pregnancy unexpectedly.
“At a time they most need access to their friends, healthcare professionals and advocates, they are isolated as their phones and computers are impounded. Any innocuous internet search or message with friends – such as ‘how do I get an abortion?’ – can be used as evidence against them.
“That a woman can spend 36 hours in a police cell while recovering from surgery following pregnancy loss, resulting in PTSD, or a young teenager can be driven to self-harm and have her confidentiality destroyed, should be unthinkable in a civilised society.”
Abortions are still deemed a criminal act in England, Scotland and Wales under the 1967 Abortion Act. If any medical professional delivers an abortion out of the terms of the act, they are at risk of facing criminal punishment.
Legislation passed in 1861 means any woman who ends a pregnancy without getting legal permission from two doctors, who must agree continuing with it would be risky for the woman’s physical or mental health, can face up to life imprisonment.
For years, abortion providers, charities, medical bodies, and MPs have been calling for abortion to be decriminalised in the UK. They want to see abortion law extricated from criminal law and monitored in the same way as other medical practices.
Dr Lord added: “This is happening because we have a law, created 67 years before women had the right to vote, that sets abortion (and therefore unexplained pregnancy loss) as equivalent to murder.
“Staff wrongly assume they must inform the police to investigate, even though to breach confidentiality may be against their professional regulatory codes. Police and prosecution services seem unwilling to apply compassion or a public interest test.”
His comments come after the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade – the landmark decision that legalised abortion nationwide in 1973 – last month. Millions of women in America have subsequently lost their legal right to terminate a pregnancy, with more than half of US states expected to ban abortion or heavily restrict policies in the wake of the decision.
Dr Lord warned we must not “be complacent the forces which led to Roe v Wade being repealed aren’t also here” in the UK.
NHS England did not want to comment on the issue.