A 22 year-old woman is set to go on trial in a UK court next year for procuring drugs for an illegal abortion during the pandemic.
Bethany Cox pleaded not guilty at Teesside Crown Court yesterday to charges of child destruction and procuring her own miscarriage when she was 19 years-old, using the abortion pill misoprostol.
The charges against Cox fall under section 58 of the Offences against the Person Act 1861, which makes it an offence for a woman to unlawfully procure her own abortion in England and Wales. Both charges carry a potential sentence of up to life in prison.
Cox’s supporters and family members filled the court’s public gallery, with some in tears as the charges were read.
Victoria Lamballe, Cox’s barrister, raised concerns during the proceedings that given the nature of the charges, there had not yet been a psychiatric report.
A seven-day trial was provisionally set beginning January 15 next year, giving time to compile a psychiatric report.
Although abortion was technically legalised by Parliament in 1967, the 1861 law was not repealed. That means parts of it still apply – including some circumstances when a woman has an abortion after the 24-week legal limit.
Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK where there is a legal right to abortion under the Human Rights Act after the Northern Ireland Executive Formation Act was passed in 2019.
Cox is the fourth woman in eight months to appear in front of a UK judge on similar charges.
Only three other women have been convicted of carrying out an illegal abortion since the offence of inducing a miscarriage was introduced more than 160 years ago, according to experts.
“It is clear that prosecutors are taking a much more aggressive stand against women with unexplained pregnancy loss or who are suspected of having an illegal abortion”, Jonathan Lord, co-chairman of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists abortion task force told the Times last week.
The number of women and girls facing police investigations in England over abortion laws has increased in recent years, according to Home Office data and campaigners.
Last month, a mother who was jailed for procuring an illegal abortion – also during the Covid-19 pandemic – had her prison sentence reduced by the Court of Appeal.
Three judges ruled that 44 year-old Carla Foster’s original 28-month sentence should be reduced to a 14-month suspended sentence.
Dame Victoria Sharp wrote in the summary judgement for the appeal that it was “a case that calls for compassion, not punishment” and there was “no useful purpose” in detaining the mother of three.
Last December, the Crown Prosecution Service dropped the case against an Oxford mother who was charged with taking misoprostol while pregnant under the same law, a year after successfully delivering her baby via C-section.
The judge had previously told the prosecutors that he was “flabbergasted“ the case was being brought and that “there can be no conceivable public interest in pursuing it”.
In November, 23 year-old Sophie Harvey is due to stand trial with her partner Elliot Benham, also 23, at Gloucester Crown Court. Both have pleaded not guilty to the joint charges which include illegally procuring drugs from India to cause a miscarriage and concealing the birth of a child.
The Crown Prosecution Service has said that although these “exceptionally rare cases are complex and traumatic”, its prosecutors have a duty to ensure the laws set by Parliament are considered and applied.
Caroline Nokes MP, the Conservative chair of the women and equalities committee, said in reaction to the initial sentencing of Foster that there was “a case for Parliament” to start looking at this issue in detail.