Woman jailed for illegally taking abortion pills will be released following appeal

Carla Foster, 44, was convicted of inducing an abortion outside the legal limit. (Reach)

A woman who was jailed for illegally inducing an abortion during lockdown will be released from prison after winning a Court of Appeal bid to reduce her sentence.

Mother-of-three Carla Foster, 45, was handed a 28-month extended sentence last month after she admitted illegally obtaining abortion pills when she was between 32 and 34 weeks pregnant, contrary to the1861 Offences Against the Person Act – an offence which can carry a life sentence.

Foster, from Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, was given a 28-month sentence, 14 of which was to be spent in custody and the remainder on licence, sparking outrage from women's charities and equality campaigners.

But at the Court of Appeal in London, three judges reduced her prison sentence, saying the case called for "compassion, not punishment".

Dame Victoria Sharp, sitting with Lord Justice Holroyde and Mrs Justice Lambert, said Foster’s sentence would be reduced to 14 months and that it should be suspended.

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - 2019/09/04: Former Immigration Minister Caroline Nokes is seen at College Green in  Westminster, London. (Photo by Steve Taylor/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Caroline Nokes, chairwoman of the Commons Women and Equalities Committee, has called for reform of abortion laws. (Getty Images)

Abortions are legal up to 24 weeks and must be carried out in a clinic after 10 weeks of pregnancy.

Foster was between 32 and 34 weeks pregnant when she received the medication from the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) under the 'pills by post' scheme introduced during the coronavirus pandemic.

The scheme allows pregnancies up to 10 weeks to be terminated at home, but Foster lied in a remote consultation about how far along her pregnancy was.

She already had three sons before she became pregnant again in 2019.

Stoke-on-Trent Crown Court heard she had moved back in with her estranged partner at the start of the COVID lockdown, while carrying another man's baby.

The court heard Foster was "in emotional turmoil" as she tried to hide her pregnancy.

Defending Foster, Barry White, said: "She says she cannot forgive herself and it will haunt her forever."

Her case prompted calls for reform to the 1861 legislation used to prosecute Foster.

At the time, Caroline Nokes, chairwoman of the Commons Women and Equalities Committee, told BBC Radio 4’s World Tonight programme: “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.

“I think that makes a case for parliament to start looking at this issue in detail.”

'Painful day'

Mandu Reid, leader of the Women's Equality Party, condemned the prosecution and original sentencing, calling it a "painful day" for women.

She told Yahoo News UK: "I want to send my support and my solidarity to the woman shamefully deprived of her freedom today, to her children, who will be missing their mum, and to everyone currently under police investigation or undergoing court proceedings regarding an abortion.

"Today is a painful day.

"A woman in England has been criminalised for seeking healthcare in the middle of a pandemic. Now she has been sentenced to over two years in prison."

Women's Equality Party leader Mandu Reid called the judgement 'a painful day' for women in England. (Lewis Patrick)
Women's Equality Party leader Mandu Reid called the sentencing 'a painful day' for women in England. (Lewis Patrick)
Labour MP Stella Creasy slammed the case as 'an attack on women's rights' and called for reform of abortion laws. (Alamy Live News/PA)
Labour MP Stella Creasy said the case was 'an attack on women's rights' and called for reform of abortion laws. (Alamy)

Labour MP and abortion reform campaigner Stella Creasy said: “It is an hangover from another era that our abortion laws are based not on healthcare considerations, but first and foremost criminal sanctions.

“This case shows that the failure to address this has very real modern day implications.

"In the light of repeated attacks on women’s rights and the lack of compassion this case shows, its never been more urgent to ensure it is a formal human right of all women in the UK to access a safe, legal and local abortion if she chooses."

'How to lose a baby at six months'

In the original case, Stoke-on-Trent Crown Court heard that Foster discovered she was pregnant in December 2019, then arranged a telephone consultation with the BPAS in May 2020.

The consultation was for the “pills by post” service – introduced during the pandemic to allow women to obtain a medical abortion when up to 10 weeks pregnant.

Based on her answers to questions about her pregnancy, it was determined she was only around seven weeks pregnant and she was sent abortion pills in the post.

A woman has been jailed for more than two years for taking abortion pills past the legally allowed term during lockdown. (Getty)
Carla Foster, 44, was jailed on Monday at Stoke-on-Trent Crown Court for taking abortion pills past the legally allowed term during lockdown. (Getty Images)

The prosecution said she had made a number of internet searches between February and May 2020, including “how to hide a pregnancy bump”, “how to have an abortion without going to the doctor” and “how to lose a baby at six months”.

On 11 May 2020, having taken the pills, a 999 call was made saying the woman was in labour.

The baby was born during the course of the phone call, prosecutors told the court, but was not breathing and was pronounced dead at hospital around 45 minutes later.

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Reid labelled the case "a damning indictment of abortion law in England" and said the consequences would "ripple across the country".

She warned: "It will be women who pay the price".

"Nothing about this conviction serves the public interest, or the interests of her and her children. It also reveals the indefensible, ugly truth about the criminalisation of abortion.

"Opposition to abortion has never been about what’s best for children or women. It has always been about restricting women’s freedom and bodily autonomy."

Reid said the ruling "may deter women from seeking vital healthcare when they need it, and risk women feeling forced into continuing with unwanted pregnancies".

She said: "This conviction must mark a line in the sand. It’s time to move abortion out of criminal law once and for all.

"Abortion is healthcare and it must be free, safe and legal."

Mr Justice Pepperall acknowledged it was an emotive case and said it was made more “tragic” because the woman did not plead guilty earlier, adding that he may have been able to consider suspending the jail sentence if she had.

Centre for Women’s Justice director Harriet Wistrich questioned how the prosecution was in the public interest.

“What possible purpose is served in criminalising and imprisoning this woman, when at most she needs better access to healthcare and other support?” she said.

“She is clearly already traumatised by the experience and now her children will be left without their mother for over a year."

Women’s human rights programme director at Amnesty International UK, Chiara Capraro, said the decision to prosecute was “shocking and quite frankly terrifying”.

Pro-life organisation Right to Life UK have called for a “full inquiry” into BPAS over sending Foster the tablets.

Spokesperson Catherine Robinson said: “The Government must firmly reject changing legislation to make abortion legal right up to birth, as is proposed by abortion campaigners, led by BPAS, who are using this tragic case to call for the removal of more abortion safeguards and to build momentum for their campaign to introduce abortion up to birth across the United Kingdom.”

At the time, the Crown Prosecution Service said the case was “complex and traumatic”, but said it had a duty to ensure laws are “properly considered and applied when making difficult charging decisions”.

BPAS chief executive Clare Murphy said “no woman can ever go through this again” and called for MPs to protect women in desperate circumstances so they are never threatened with prison.

Watch: Woman jailed for taking abortion pills after legal limit during lockdown