Abortion, Criminal Law & Crisis Pregnancies


Healthcare is a fundamental human right, yet as women we know our bodies have long been viewed as the property of men and of the state. This patriarchal notion is never as obvious as when it comes to a woman’s right to choose to end a pregnancy.

Abortion, Criminal Law & Crisis Pregnancies

By Dr Shonagh Dillon 

Shonagh is the CEO at Aurora New Dawn, a domestic abuse, sexual violence and stalking charity supporting victim/survivors. Shonagh has worked in the male violence against women movement for nearly 3 decades.  A Director of Woman’s Place UK. She writes for The Critic.

Women’s history in healthcare

The right for women to be involved in medical practice, clinical trials, or to be able to access the healthcare of their choice has long been a feminist battleground. Before the practice of medicine became of interest to men, women were the unofficial healers in their communities. They shared their pharmaceutical secrets with their daughters and neighbours, passing on their knowledge of herbs to cure specific ailments, and travelling from village to village as midwives, doctors, pharmacists, and abortionists.

However, through the Middle Ages women were driven out of the medical profession.  A combination of the power of the church, as well as the progressive professionalisation of the medical field, saw the creation of the stipulation that only people with a university education could practice medicine, and of course those ‘people’ were men. Women who did practice medicine were amongst the poorest. Their neighbours called them ‘wise women’, but the authorities put them on trial and accused them of witchcraft.

Centuries later modern medicine is a global industry. However, despite women accessing medical care more frequently than men throughout their lives, females were largely excluded from clinical trials until the 1990s, the reality of this means there are still huge gaps in knowledge of sex-based drug research.

Healthcare is a fundamental human right, yet as women we know our bodies have long been viewed as the property of men and of the state. This patriarchal notion is never as obvious as when it comes to a woman’s right to choose to end a pregnancy.

Abortion rights and the UK

In June 2022 feminists watched in horror as women’s rights in the United States were annihilated and attacked by religious anti-abortionists. Since the many successes of second wave feminists in the 1960s and 1970s, the backlash of the Christian Right has been vociferous in the US. They have positioned themselves at the heart of politics and the legislature; their long campaign finally succeeded in the repealing of Roe V Wade – thus dismantling fifty years of legal protection for women.

The overturning of Roe V Wade will affect women across the United States, but those most affected will be marginalised women; poorer women and women of colour. When men’s rights activists and the women who support them succeed in their campaigns, the speed at which they destroy feminist successes is tangible. It’s worth noting that current Presidential hopeful, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, has enforced a six week abortion ban (known emotively as ‘the heart beat ban‘), which in practical terms more or less amounts to a full ban.

Women in Great Britain could be forgiven for thinking that our right to choose a termination of pregnancy isn’t at risk, but unfortunately like our sisters across the pond, accessing the healthcare of our choice is far from secure. The 1967 Abortion Act did not make abortion ‘legal’, the fact remains that abortion is illegal in Great Britain, and we have some of the harshest punishments for vulnerable, in-crisis women who end a pregnancy outside the requirements of the Abortion Act.

Criminal Law and Crisis Pregnancies

The 1861 Offences Against the Person Act (OAPA), is still in operation. Section 58 of the OAPA requires two doctors to agree to an abortion, anything outside of this is considered ‘procuring a miscarriage’, with a potential to be sentenced to life imprisonment. Section 59 of the OAPA criminalises the supply of abortion medication, meaning that any woman who obtains means for an abortion from sources other than official providers could be imprisoned. Under section 60 of the
OAPA, woman in England and Wales can be found guilty of ‘concealment of birth’ – an offence often use to punish women if it is suspected, but cannot be proven, she has harmed her unborn baby. Similar offences exist in Scotland through case law.

In the last eight years there have been 17 women investigated by the police for ending their own pregnancies with one case currently going through the courts, and the other widely publicised last week where a woman was sentenced to 28 months for ending her pregnancy. She leaves behind her three children, one of whom has special needs. Her story details a clear indication of the amount of distress she was and is still in, the fact she has been sent to prison is an abhorrent miscarriage of justice.

Other cases include

  • A women who have taken telemedical pills incorrectly
  • A teenage girl who was investigated after a still birth at 28 weeks, with the police removing her laptop whilst she was studying for her GCSEs, leading to her enduring a long-protracted ordeal where she was driven to self-harm. The case finally ended when the coroner concluded that the pregnancy had ended due to natural causes
  • In 2021 a woman was arrested in hospital after experiencing a stillbirth, she was kept in a police cell for 36 hours

It will come as no surprise that the women being investigated and criminalised by the state under these archaic Victorian Laws are some of the most vulnerable in society. Many of them are being subjected to violence and abuse, and/or, living in extreme poverty.

Dr Emma Milne


But it was 30+ weeks?


My work at Aurora New Dawn, led me and the organisation to becoming involved with the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) in 2017. We began supporting the BPAS campaign for buffer zones outside abortion clinics in the UK. Although, like most feminists, I have campaigned on the rights of women to access abortion for many years, until very recently I was completely unaware that anti-abortion sentiments are driving the criminalisation of women through use of laws that are over 160 years old.

Dr Emma Milne is an expert in this field, and I was lucky enough to cross paths with her through my exploration into the topic. Dr Milne has researched the use of archaic legislation to criminalise women at a time of their lives when they need help not harm. Dr Milne’s research is ground-breaking and illuminates the issues of abortion, the Criminal Law, and Crisis Pregnancies for women in Great Britain.

As feminists we understand our rights are hard fought for, a great many of us have been out front and centre in recent years due to the threat to our single sex spaces, looking back many of us did not see that attack coming. It’s all too familiar when our energy is taken up with one backlash to turn around and realise that the patriarchy is swiftly destroying other feminist successes. It’s like a never-ending game of whack a mole…

Thankfully women like Dr Milne have been holding the line for us and raising the profile of the reality
of abortion rights for women in Great Britain. Had it not been for her work I would be completely unaware of the punishments meted out to women who do not conform to the moralistic desires of those who oppose a woman’s right to choose.

I am delighted that Dr Milne will be joining me in a Woman’s Place UK webinar #WPUKReproductiveRights, 7pm July 6th, 2023. Learn more about her research on crisis pregnancies, reproductive rights, the law, and what we can do to support her work and campaigns please join. She is worth listening to! It is free to register.

Dr Shonagh Dillon


“But she was 30+ weeks” A response blog by Dr Emma Milne 

Dr Emma Milne is Associate Professor in Criminal Law and Criminal Justice at Durham University. Her research focuses on criminal law and criminal justice responses to infant killing and foetal harm. The wider context of Emma’s work is social controls and regulations of all women, notably in relation to pregnancy, sex, and motherhood.  Find out more about Emma’s research and receive updates about the campaign to change the law.


Take action

#TimeToAct Please write to your MP via BPAS here.

Further reading

WPUK BLOG: ‘But she was 30+ weeks’ By Dr Emma Milne  I  The Guardian: The Case For Decriminalisation  I  The Guardian: Google earned $10m from ads misdirecting abortion seekers to ‘pregnancy crisis centers’  I  WPUK: Advice to US Women to Compromise on Abortion Rights Misses the Mark: Katherine M Acosta  I  WPUK: Roe V Wade must stand  I  The Guardian: Scrap this unjust verdict, scrap this law: no woman should go to prison for having an abortion  I  WPUK: #TimeToAct Protest London & Manchester

We believe that it is important to share a range of viewpoints on women’s rights and advancement from different perspectives. WPUK does not necessarily agree or endorse all the views that we share.