Thousands of protesters marched through central London this afternoon as they demanded Carla Foster to be freed from jail, after her sentencing earlier this week reignited calls for abortion to be decriminalised.
Ms Foster was given a 28-month extended sentence on Monday after she admitted illegally procuring her own abortion during the pandemic when she was between 32 and 34 weeks pregnant.
Protesters marched from the Royal Courts of Justice to Whitehall today chanting “Free Carla Foster” and waving signs saying “abortion is healthcare”.
They called for an end to Victorian legislation that renders abortion a criminal act in England, Scotland and Wales, with women granted exemptions in certain circumstances up until 24 weeks of pregnancy.
There are seven exemptions that can be granted to allow a woman to have an abortion, but none stating that a woman simply does not want a baby. For 98 per cent of women who had an abortion last year, it was recorded as being “performed because of a risk to the woman’s mental health”, classified as “F99 (mental disorder, not otherwise specified)”.
Under current legislation, abortions can only take place after 24 weeks in specific circumstances including when the mother’s life is at risk or if the child will be severely disabled.
Labour MP Stella Creasy delivered a speech to protesters who gathered in Whitehall this afternoon, claiming that current abortion legislation is no longer “fit for purpose”.
“This week proves what some of us have been trying to tell, often at length, patiently, to middle-aged men on Twitter,” she said.
“We do not have a legal right to choose in England and Wales, and that has very real consequences.”
She later told i that the significant turnout to the march “shows women aren’t prepared to accept to the possibility of prosecution hanging over their right to choose”.
“Lawmakers who think they can ignore these concerns fail to understand how important protecting a womans right to choose is to so many,” she said. “Parliament has to act as with more prosecutions on the way this issue isn’t going away.”
Lucy Wing, a 21-year-old from Walthamstow in London who attended the march, said she was “outraged” at Ms Foster’s case.
“I am here because I do not believe that the law that Carla Foster was sentenced under was at all just,” she said.
“A legal understanding of what a person is does not encompass a foetus and it does not encompass a child that was born not breathing. That child does not have any human rights because it is not seen as a person.”
Ms Foster was jailed earlier this week after being found to have ended her pregnancy in May 2020 with “pills by post” that allowed women under 10 weeks pregnant to receive abortion medication during the first Covid lockdown, when access to health services ground to a halt.
The “pills by post” scheme, which was intended to be a temporary measure ushered in during the pandemic, has now been introduced permanently.
Ms Foster, a mother-of-three, pleaded guilty to administering drugs to procure abortion significantly beyond the 10-week time limit, contrary to the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act. The offence carried a maximum life sentence.
The judge, Mr Justice Pepperall, had received a letter from medical bodies including the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and the Royal College of Midwives urging him to pass a non-custodial sentence.
However, he said this was “inappropriate” and sentenced the woman on the basis of the law as it stands.
The case has reignited calls to decriminalise abortion in the UK, with charities launching a fresh campaign to reform “outdated” laws that allow woman to face life imprisonment for ending their own pregnancies.
Ed Dorman, 64, an obstetrician and gynaecologist who also attended the march, said that Ms Foster’s case had “galvanised” the abortion movement and drawn attention to the punity of current laws.
“As you can tell from today, it has galvanised a lot of very strong feeling about the inappropriateness of the way the law, if it’s applied, can result in somebody being sent to prison for ending their own pregnancy,” he said.
“I would like to see, as in Northern Ireland, the whole remit of abortion care being taken out of the criminal law and, whilst still regulated, be like any other part of healthcare.”
Abortion was decriminalised in Northern Ireland in October 2019 after Westminster passed laws while the government at Stormont had collapsed.
However, abortion is still technically illegal in the rest of the UK as legislation brought into force in 1861 has not yet been repealed.
No 10 said earlier this week that the Government has no plans to alter abortion laws despite outrage over Ms Foster’s sentencing.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said on Tuesday: “Through the Abortion Act, all women have access to safe abortions on the NHS up to 24 weeks and we have made changes so that now includes taking abortion pills at home.
“We think this approach provides the right balance and … there are no plans to change this.”
The spokesman added: “We recognise that this is a highly emotive issue and obviously we recognise that the strength of feeling on all sides.”
Additional reporting by PA