Medical professionals advised to refrain from reporting abortions to authorities
Sose Ebodaghe – 29 January 2024
The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) has released guidance for healthcare professionals including the advice to stop reporting illegal abortions to the police. The idea behind the move revolves around the fact that convictions of these women are never in the public interest. As it stands, abortion can be a criminal offense in England under the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 if it happens after the first 24 weeks without approval from a doctor, carrying a potential sentence of life imprisonment. The RCOG has said that medical staff have no legal obligation to report these abortions to the police or any authorities unless doctors are genuinely concerned for the safety of the women in question or other parties. Confidentiality rules, such as the confidentiality of blood tests, should be maintained, and information should not be provided to the police without a court order; the police should only ask for this information if there is the possibility for the potential prosecution of a crime that would be in the public interest. Further, because the laws on this matter are so old, women who lose their babies unexpectedly for inexplicable reasons may also be subject to prosecution for illegal abortion. So, because the Offences Against the Person Act was never repealed or amended for unregulated abortions, anyone attempting to terminate their pregnancy without medical supervision is doing so unlawfully.
Between 2002 and 2022, the police investigated no less than 67 alleged illegal abortion cases, with only three women prosecuted. Yet in the last two years, six women have been brought to court on these charges. Most recently, Carla Foster and Bethany Cox were prosecuted for misleading the British Pregnancy Advisory Service by claiming that they were less than 10 weeks along in their pregnancies when the pregnancy was, in reality, far more advanced. Foster was sentenced to 28 months but was released on appeal after significant protest from the public, although her sentence was only halved. Cox was cleared of her charges this month.
The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, naturally, disagrees with the RCOG’s guidance, arguing that the refusal of health workers to report these abortions would undermine the trust the public has in the health service, as well as the judicial system. In response, the RCOG has stated that their advice comes from a place of concern, as the women having these abortions are often vulnerable and traumatised as a result of the very experience they are being prosecuted for. Besides, there are existing statutes that require the disclosure of information by healthcare professionals to the police, such as cases concerning female genital mutilation in girls under 18. Overall, the RCOG’s goal is to decriminalise abortion altogether, placing it under medical regulation instead to better protect the women in these circumstances, and this is a powerful first step to start the conversation surrounding that.