Case of Self-Induced Late Abortion Raises Troubling Questions About British Laws

An eight-year jail sentence raises troubling questions about British abortion laws.

Justice Jeremy Cooke. Photo: Photoshot via The Guardian.

Last week a 35-year-old British woman was given an eight-year jail sentence for causing her own abortion one week before full-term.

Sarah Catt, from North Yorkshire, England, had, earlier in 2009, tried to obtain a legal abortion at a clinic but, at 30 weeks, had been told she was too far along. Catt was 39-weeks pregnant when she self-administered Misoprostol, procured over the internet from India, which caused her to miscarry. Catt then claimed the baby was stillborn, but has refused to reveal the location of the body. She pled guilty in July to administering a poison with intent to procure a miscarriage. Sentencing her to eight years in prison, the judge, Mr. Justice Jeremy Cooke, said that Catt had made a “deliberate and calculated decision” to end her pregnancy. He added that Catt had robbed the baby of the life it was about to have and said the seriousness of the crime lay between manslaughter and murder.

Evidence presented in court suggested that Catt had a troubled history of pregnancy and childbirth: she had previously given up a child for adoption in 1999; had one legal termination; tried to terminate another pregnancy but missed the legal limit; and concealed another pregnancy from her husband before the child’s birth. Commenting on the case, advocacy group Abortion Rights said:

This is a sad and unusual case and one that highlights the desperation women can feel when faced by an unwanted pregnancy and when they feel their options are closed.

The upper legal time limit for abortion in this country is 24 weeks in most cases, and while we do not condone anyone operating outside the law, the case underlines how vital it is for women to have access to safe, legal abortion as early as possible in pregnancy.

Sarah Catt is clearly a very troubled individual, with a complex medical history. An eight year jail term in such a case is disproportionate.

Women who find themselves in what seem like impossible circumstances must be treated with understanding and compassion, and offered treatment if appropriate, not threatened with prosecution.

Compassion was lacking in much of the media coverage of the case, however, with many outlets focusing on the leading investigator’s description of her as “cold and calculating and (having) shown no remorse or given an explanation for what she did.” Several news outlets chose to focus on the fact that the pregancy was a result of an extra-maritial affair.

The case raises difficult questions about the legal rights of pregnant women in Great Britain. In his sentencing remarks, the judge said:

There is no mitigation available by reference to the Abortion Act, whatever view one takes of its provisions which are, wrongly, liberally construed in practice so as to make abortion available essentially on demand prior to 24 weeks with the approval of registered medical practitioners.

The judge’s (who has since been revealed to be a member of a Christian charity, which has campaigned for more restrictive abortion laws) comments on the “wrongful” interpretation of the Abortion Act of 1967 highlights the fact that the law does not legally address the rights of pregnant women; it simply allows legal access to abortion under certain circumstances. Essentially British women have access to legal abortion only when two doctors agree that continuing the pregancy would be a risk to the physical or mental health of the woman. That abortion is, in practice, available on demand in Great Britain is through a loophole that some worry may close with the rise of anti-choice rhetoric in the country.

The ruling comes at a time of increasing anxiety for British pro-choice activists. At the end of summer a cabinet reshuffle gave Conservative anti-choice MP Jeremy Hunt the role of Health Minister (in 2008 Hunt voted to reduce the legal time limit for abortion from 24 weeks to 12).

Anti-choice protests, too, which were once rare in Great Britain, have been steadily increasing; the anti-choice group Abort67 was just last week cleared by Brighton Magistrates Court of public order offenses for displaying material that is ‘threatening, abusive or insulting,’ and of directly confronting clients outside a Brighton clinic. Commenting on this verdict,  Abortion Rights said:

This verdict demonstrates that the current law is inadequate to protect women from intimidation by hard-line anti-abortion activists. It will be viewed as a green light for them to continue their aggressive campaign tactics.

The Sarah Catt case underscores how important it remains for women to be able to access abortion services, and to be guaranteed privacy and safety, within the legal time frame.