Calls for urgent reform of 'outdated' abortion laws, as mother who ended pregnancy after legal limit to be freed

18 July 2023, 20:46 | Updated: 19 July 2023, 13:59

Women's rights activists have welcomed news that Carla Foster is to be freed
Women's rights activists have welcomed news that Carla Foster is to be freed. Picture: Handout/Alamy

By Kit Heren

Activists have called for "outdated" abortion laws that saw a mother-of-three jailed for illegally terminating her pregnancy outside the legal limits to be reformed, after a court ordered the woman to be released from prison.

Carla Foster, 45, was handed a 28-month extended sentence after she admitted illegally procuring her own abortion when she was between 32 and 34 weeks pregnant.

Abortions are generally only legal before 24 weeks and are carried out in clinics after ten weeks of pregnancy. Foster acquired her abortion pills in lockdown from the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) by misleading the service about how close she was to giving birth.

Sentencing her last month, Mr Justice Pepperall said Foster would serve half her term in custody and the remainder on licence after her release.

But three judges at the Court of Appeal in London on Tuesday reduced her prison sentence to 14 months and agreed that it should be suspended.

"This is a very sad case... It is a case that calls for compassion, not punishment," Dame Victoria Sharp, sitting with Lord Justice Holroyde and Mrs Justice Lambert, said.

Read More: 'Shame on her midwife!': Women outraged after mum-of-three jailed for taking abortion pills after legal limit

Carla Foster
Carla Foster. Picture: Facebook

Several women's rights groups welcomed the ruling - but said that the next step should be to decriminalise late abortions. Others said the case showed the law should go further the other way - meaning women would have to see a doctor before terminating a pregnancy.

Clare Murphy, chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, said: "We echo the judges' statements that this is a case that calls for compassion, not punishment, and are delighted with the decision to release Carla Foster from prison.

"The Court of Appeal has today recognised that this cruel, antiquated law does not reflect the values of society today.

"Now is the time to reform abortion law so that no more women are unjustly criminalised for taking desperate actions at a desperate time in their lives.

"Two women accused of illegally ending their own pregnancies are currently awaiting trial.

"We urge Parliament to take action and decriminalise abortion as a matter of urgency so that no more women have to endure the threat of prosecution and imprisonment."

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Harriet Wistrich, solicitor and director of Centre for Women's Justice, said "anyone seeking to terminate a late pregnancy is almost certainly likely to be in crisis" and that "no useful purpose can possibly have been served by imprisoning this woman".

She added: "The CPS need to review the application of the public interest test when making decisions to prosecute women who terminate pregnancies outside the strict legal guidelines.

"The current laws on abortion are outdated and illiberal, they are in urgent need of reform.

"Abortion should be decriminalised and access to early safe abortion made more regularly available.

"Falling short of decriminalisation, we call on the Director of Public Prosecutions to provide clear guidance on the prosecution of such cases which should be pursued only in the most exceptional cases, if at all."

Foston Hall prison in Derbyshire where Carla Foster is being held ahead of her release
Foston Hall prison in Derbyshire where Carla Foster is being held ahead of her release. Picture: Alamy

Jemima Olchawski, chief executive of the Fawcett Society, a gender equality and women's rights charity, claimed it is "never in the public interest to prosecute a case like this one".

She said: "We are enormously relieved to hear that Carla Foster will leave custody, and applaud Dame Victoria's statement at the Court of Appeal that this case calls for compassion, not punishment.

"We are grateful to our partners at BPAS (British Pregnancy Advisory Service) for their tireless campaigning on this issue and to the Fawcett members who joined us to rally against this injustice.

"However, the question remains why a woman seeking healthcare was ever criminalised in the first place.

"It was never, and is never, in the public interest to prosecute a case like this one.

"The law that allowed this to happen is so old it predates women's suffrage - it is in no way fit for purpose in modern-day Britain. It wasn't written by us, and it doesn't work for us."

She added that the issue was wider than Ms Foster, calling the abortion system "truly broken".

Ms Olchawski said that activists "must now turn our attention to the system that allowed this to happen and ensure no woman is ever treated this way again."

Carla Foster appearing by video link from Foston Hall
Carla Foster appearing by video link from Foston Hall. Picture: Alamy

But pro-life group Right to Life said that in-person appointments should be mandatory to get an abortion.

"At at least 32 weeks or around 8 months gestation, Baby Lily was a fully formed human child," Right To Life UK spokesperson Catherine Robinson said. "If her mother had been given an in-person appointment by BPAS, she would still be alive.”

They also called for an inquiry into BPAS.

Protesters after Ms Foster was jailed last month
Protesters after Ms Foster was jailed last month. Picture: Alamy

Foster appeared via videolink from Foston Hall prison for the hearing, wearing glasses and a dark blue top with flowers on the shoulders.

Her barrister, Barry White, said there was a lack of "vital" reports into Foster's mental health at the time of the offence and that "the obvious impact of the pandemic added to Ms Foster's already anxious state of mind".

The Court of Appeal was told that the prison in which Foster has spent 35 days has refused to allow her any form of communication with her three children, one of whom is autistic.

Mr White also said Foster had voluntarily brought her actions to the attention of the police, adding: "Had she not done that, it is highly unlikely that she would have ever been prosecuted."

Robert Price, for the Crown Prosecution Service, said the original sentence was not "manifestly excessive".

Read More: 'No one has the right to judge you': Mum-of-three jailed for taking abortion pills after legal limit hits back

Ms Foster had been sent abortion pills after lying to the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) about how far along in her pregnancy she was.

The mum-of-three pleaded guilty to section 58 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, administering drugs or using instruments to procure abortion.

Speaking before her original sentencing, Ms Foster said defiantly that "no one has the right to judge you because no one knows what you've been through".

Ms Foster also posted a text image which read: "Life has knocked me down a few times, it showed me things I never wanted to see. I experienced sadness and failures. But one thing for sure, I always get up."

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The original sentencing was subject to a wave of criticism, including from a number of MPs.

Conservative MP Caroline Nokes arguing the case should spark a debate about a possible change in the law.

Ms Nokes said at the time: "This is not something that has been debated in any great detail for many years now.

"And cases like this, although tragic and fortunately very rare, do throw into stark relief that we are reliant on legislation that is very, very out of date."

Mandu Reid from the Women's Equality Party told LBC's Tom Swarbrick at the time: "I think what this does is it shines a spotlight on how problematic it is that abortion as a medical procedure is subject to criminal law in this way.