Reproductive rights: Rules, legal risks...everything to know if you're getting an abortion

On Monday, June 14 2023, a British woman was sentenced to two years in prison for getting an abortion after the authorized limit of weeks. Here are the rules on abortion pills in the UK.

Here is what you should know if you are getting a chemical abortion
© Annette Riedl / Getty Images
Here is what you should know if you are getting a chemical abortion

The laws surrounding voluntary termination of pregnancy are not the same everywhere. In the UK, a 44-year-old woman has just been sentenced to prison after having an abortion which was considered 'too late'. Three years ago, a mother of three discovered she was pregnant, and took abortion pills which she got after lying about the number of weeks she had been pregnant. Indeed, she told doctors she was only seven weeks pregnant, when in fact she was about 32 weeks pregnant, which means she was eight-months pregnant.

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The woman was prosecuted following the discovery of her illegal abortion when she gave birth to the baby, who died 45 minutes after birth. She was sentenced to two years in prison.

This leaves us wondering, what is the law on abortion in the UK, and what do you risk if you break it?

What does the law say?

In England, Wales, and Scotland, pregnant women have the right to an abortion up to the 24th week of pregnancy. In France, the legal deadline is 14 weeks. In other countries, such as Portugal, abortion is possible up to 10 weeks, while in the United States, since last year, the right to abortion has been totally reconsidered, as the Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade, the trial which allowed Americans to get an abortion in all states. Now, many states have put a total ban on abortion.

Since the Covid-19 pandemic, it is now possible to have a medical abortion at home, under the 'pills by post' scheme. You can now see a doctor remotely, and receive your pills in the mail. In some cases, doctors can require you to come into the hospital or clinic to undergo a scan, which can determine how many weeks along the pregnancy is. However, this is not always the case, and you may simply see a doctor remotely to get the pills.

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The legal risks of getting an abortion after 24 weeks

So, what do you actually risk if you get a late abortion? Well, a British woman found out on Monday, June 12. After lying to her doctor about how many weeks along she was in her pregnancy, she received the pills in the mail, as part of the government's 'pill by post' scheme which allows women to get an abortion at home.

The woman pled guilty under the Offences against the Person Act, a law which dates back to 1861, when women were not even allowed to vote. And yet, she was sentenced under this very law to twenty-eight months in prison. `

According to the British Pregnancy Association Service, the number of women and girls facing investigations and convictions for getting an abortion has risen considerably over the past three years.

The Guardian reports that a mitigation plea was sent to a judge on one of these cases in April 2023, which was signed by groups including the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and the Royal College of Midwives. They argue that sentencing women who get an abortion may lead to others not seeking medical help when they need it, for fear of being imprisoned.

We plead to Your Honour to consider leniency in this case … we are fearful that if the case before you receives a custodial sentence it may signal to other women who access tele-medical abortion services, or who experience later gestation deliveries, that they risk imprisonment if they seek medical care.

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How to get help if you need an abortion

If you are less than 10 weeks pregnant, you can have a medical abortion, which is carried out by taking two different pills. As of now last year, you can get a medical abortion at home, with 'pills by post'. However, remember to always be careful with what you can buy online, and to make sure you are in a safe environment, and not alone, before taking the medication, as it can have side effects.

During the doctor's appointment, whether at the hospital or remotely, you should expect a discussion around the reasons for your abortion. The doctor will then walk you through the different methods available, and what to expect if you choose to undergo one of them.

The physician should offer you a session with a trained counsellor, and should not judge you. If you feel uncomfortable, you should find another doctor quickly. You will feel vulnerable and should be surrounded by supportive people. Once you are sure you want an abortion, you will be offered a date to undergo the procedure. Remember you can change your mind at any point.

Read more:Can you get pregnant while on your period?

Sources used:

NHS: Abortion

British Pregnancy Advisory Service: Pills by Post – Abortion Pill treatment at home

Guardian: Outrage at jail sentence for woman who took abortion pills later than UK limit

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