U.K. abortion rights groups are planning large demonstrations on Saturday outside London’s Royal Courts of Justice, after a woman was controversially jailed on Monday under an 1861 law for using drugs to induce a medical abortion past legal term limits.
The case has sparked outcry and calls for an overhaul of reproductive justice laws in the U.K., as well as the full decriminalization of abortion.
Carla Foster, a 44-year-old mother of three, was sentenced to 28 months in custody for using a “pills by post” initiative for at-home medical abortions. Women up to 10 weeks pregnant are eligible to receive these prescriptions but Stoke on Trent crown court found that Foster misled the British Pregnancy Advisory Service’s (BPAS) telemedicine provider by saying she was around seven weeks along, when she was 32 to 34 weeks pregnant.
Foster had told the court that she was unsure of how far along she was in her pregnancy, and did not visit a doctor out of “embarrassment.”
Foster initially pleaded not guilty to a charge of an offense of child destruction, but later pleaded guilty to a different offense under Section 58 of the Offenses Against the Person Act (OAPA) that relates to “administering drugs or using instruments to procure abortion.” The maximum sentence in the U.K. for such charges is life imprisonment.
“When the news broke, there was an avalanche of women asking what can we do? How can we express our fury, our rage, but crucially show solidarity with the woman who has been incarcerated?” says Mandu Reid, leader of the Women’s Equality political party, an organizer behind Saturday’s #TimeToAct protest that is being run with BPAS and the gender equality charity Fawcett Society.
“There’s solidarity with this woman, solidarity with every other woman—and it’s an increasing number now—who are being investigated under these draconian archaic laws,” Reid adds.
What are the U.K.’s abortion laws?
The 1967 Abortion Act made abortions legal in the U.K. under certain circumstances that would otherwise constitute a crime under the 1860s-era OAPA.
Under the U.K.’s current laws, surgical abortions are legal up to the 24 week mark and must take place in a clinic. There are some exemptions past 24 weeks, such as if the mother’s life is endangered or the child’s quality of life would be impacted by severe disability. At-home medical abortions, which were first approved during the COVID-19 pandemic, are more restricted.
The 1967 Abortion Act and OAPA are in force across England, Scotland, and Wales. Northern Ireland is exempt from these laws, and abortion was decriminalized there in 2019.
“The 1967 Act was a landmark piece of legislation. But we’re over 50 years on from that now, and healthcare has changed,” Dame Diana Johnson, a Member of Parliament for the Labour party who has repeatedly lobbied for government support of abortion reform, tells TIME. Johnson says that the way abortions are administered has changed from surgical procedures to medical ones, and society’s attitudes toward women’s right to choose have also shifted.
“One in three women have an abortion in their lifetime, so it seems to me the 1967 act is in need of reform but fundamentally, having been the 1861 Act underpinning it, and keeping it as a criminal offense seems to me very now outdated and wrong,” Johnson says. “It should be a healthcare matter and [Foster’s case] is a very good example that the criminal law really shouldn’t have a place in this issue.”
The U.K.’s medical bodies such as the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the Royal College of Midwives, and the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare have all said the law needs to be reformed.
Are charges common under the U.K.’s Offenses Against the Person Act?
Convictions like Foster’s are rare, but campaigners are warning that the number of police investigations into breaches of the 1861 act are on the rise, with some women forced to surrender their phones and laptops for “digital strip searches.” In 2021, a 15-year-old girl who experienced an unexpected stillbirth became part of a year-long criminal investigation, which was dropped after a coroner concluded the pregnancy ended due to natural causes. In 2022, another woman who used abortion medication to try to terminate her pregnancy was charged under the act.
“Most cases don’t break out into a huge news story like this one but the data tells us that, because of these laws, more women are being investigated after miscarriages and stillbirths when they most need understanding and compassion,” says Reid from Women’s Equality. “When trends like this emerge, you have to move to address them. Otherwise you find yourself in the final stages of a decade’s long campaign that resulted in Roe v. Wade being toppled, and it’s too late to stifle the momentum,” she adds.
Read More: The Fight Over Abortion Has Only Just Begun
But pro-life campaigners are also using Foster’s case to push their views. Catherine Robinson, a spokesperson for pro-life group Right To Life UK, tells TIME that they are “calling for the reinstatement of in-person appointments before abortions take place to ensure that the gestation of babies can accurately be assessed.”
The group is also calling for an inquiry into BPAS for supplying Foster with abortion medicine past term limits.
Reid says that groups like Right to Life UK have been gaining momentum. She says that when the U.S. Supreme Court in June 2022 overturned Roe v. Wade—the landmark legislation that guaranteed abortion access—pro-life groups across the globe were emboldened.
“We really need the public consciousness that this case has raised to galvanize anybody who’s pro-choice into action, put up a fight,” Reid says. “The British population are in support of a woman’s right to choose and so we can’t let anybody exploit this case to chip away at that.”
- Taylor Swift Is TIME's 2023 Person of the Year
- Meet the Nation Builders
- Why Cell Phone Reception Is Getting Worse
- Column: It's Time to Scrap the Abraham Accords
- Israeli Family Celebrates Release of Hostage Grandmother
- In a New Movie, Beyoncé Finds Freedom
- The Top 100 Photos of 2023
- Want Weekly Recs on What to Watch, Read, and More? Sign Up for Worth Your Time