13 April 2016, The Tablet

Pro-life groups respond to historic Belfast Court ruling on abortion

Last week a Northern Irish woman received a suspended three-month sentence after Belfast Crown Court found her guilty of procuring her own abortion. The decision was divisive, leaving pro-choice groups arguing against “antiquated” abortion laws and pro-life campaigners criticising the sentence as too lenient.

Here three pro-life groups share their response to the ruling:


Precious Life:

“As the leading pro-life group in Northern Ireland which has been fighting for the rights of unborn children for nineteen years and has managed to keep abortion illegal in Northern Ireland, Precious Life cannot in conscience accept this court judgment.

Our legal advisers have written to Mr Barra McGrory QC, the Director of Public Prosecutions, asking that this matter be referred back to the Court of Appeal.

Many people are struggling to understand why we have taken this step. Our reasons are as follows:

An offence under Section 58 is punishable with imprisonment for life or for any shorter term. An offence under Section 59 is punishable with imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years.

The core purpose of sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 is the protection of unborn children. The unborn baby boy in this case is the silent victim, the little person, who has been pushed aside and forgotten in this media furore.

We believe a three-month jail sentence suspended for two years is unduly lenient, considering the nature of the criminal offence committed. For anyone who finds it difficult to accept this, imagine the muffled cries of a little ten-week-old baby thrown into a bin and left to die. If it is too uncomfortable for your imagination to stretch that far, imagine a little kitten battered and abused and left to die in a bin.

Returning to the case at hand, by passing such a lenient sentence we believe that Judge McFarland undermined the Offences Against the Person Act and undermined the seriousness of the crime of killing an unborn child.

We are asking for this case to be reviewed because we fear that this judgment will set a dangerous precedent for future cases of illegal abortions in Northern Ireland. It is not about wanting to punish the young woman, but to honour the law and the protection of every human life.”



“It must be noted that the Offences Against the Person Act (OAPA) does not specify that women who have had abortions must go to prison for life, or even that women should go to prison at all. The law as it stands recognises that women have abortions for a variety of reasons in a variety of complex circumstances. Therefore all sentencing devices (custodial and non-custodial) should be available to a judge who has heard all the evidence.

It is for the court, not Life, to evaluate each case and decide on the course of action that should be taken, and Life has no intention to seek retribution for the abortion the woman has undergone.

That being said, Life recognises that those who assist in illegal abortions (those who buy abortion pills online for women in Northern Ireland, for example,) are not under the same pressures as those women facing crisis pregnancies. These groups and individuals, who systematically put women in danger by helping them break the law, should be criminally liable.

While abortion is illegal across all of the UK, England and Wales has additional legislation (Abortion Act 1967), which provides immunity from prosecution for abortion in certain circumstances, for example, if the abortion takes place before 24 weeks and has the approval of two doctors. Northern Ireland has no equivalent exemptions and is governed purely by the OAPA 1861.

Life recognises that the ‘exemptions’ found in the Abortion Act have been twisted, abused and misinterpreted for decades in England and Wales, giving immunity to abortion providers in many cases where they have contravened the law. Life cannot in any way support the current Abortion Act, which has allowed for the abortion of 8 million children since 1967.

We believe that the Abortion Act should never have been passed, and thus, should ultimately be repealed. However, all tightening of abortion legislation must occur in conjunction with greater support for women facing unplanned pregnancies.”


Right To Life:

“Section 58 of the Offences Against The Person Act 1861 (OAPA) carries legal penalties for pregnant women who, “with intent to procure her own miscarriage, shall unlawfully administer to herself any poison or other noxious thing, or shall unlawfully use any instrument or other means whatsoever with the like intent”. This means that women who choose to self-administer abortifacients (drugs that induce abortion) are subject to legal penalty in Northern Ireland.

The law appears to make the conceptual distinction between someone who procures an abortion, and someone who performs an abortion. Procurement by a woman of an abortion is not penalised by the OAPA, and so in the case of any surgical abortion, it would be the abortionist and not the pregnant mother who is subject to legal censure.

Today, however, more and more abortions are ‘medical’ abortions (last year, for the first time, over half of all abortions in England and Wales were carried out with the use of abortifacients rather than surgical methods). Given the increased sophistication and safety of this method of abortion, the easiest and most private way around the normative ban on ending the life of an unborn child is by buying abortifacients online, just as Natalie Towers did in her recent conviction, and as this woman did in Northern Ireland (who cannot be named for legal reasons).

Due to that, more women who want to break the law are likely to self-perform illegal abortions in Northern Ireland, and thus fall afoul of Section 58. Yet this should not really be seen as much of an issue, even if you are minded to think penalties for abortion should fall on abortionists rather than the pregnant mothers.

For one thing, the law does not mandate conviction, never mind the fullest penalty. Rather, it allows courts to judge each case on its own merits. When someone has, for the most callous and inhumane of reasons, chosen to organise their own abortion, the court has the flexibility to penalise them strongly.

On the other hand, if a woman has been, say, pressured by social conditions into aborting, or is – like the 21-year-old Northern Irish woman who was convicted – a young mother having given birth to another baby, then the court also has the flexibility to convict but choose a more compassionate sentence given the need that her child will have of her.

In that sense, then, this case clearly does not prove how antiquated or cruel our laws are, but on the contrary, that they strike the ideal balance: the strength to strongly rebuke and set an example, and the compassion to be lenient when it is appropriate to be so.

The answer to the question of whether women should be imprisoned for self-induced abortions is that it depends on the case. In cases where a woman has callously and selfishly ended the life of her own unborn child, then it certainly is appropriate for her to undergo legal censure for her crime.

On the other hand, there are many women who ‘choose’ abortion under extraordinary pressure for material reasons (socio-economic disadvantage), and emotional ones (abandonment by her spouse or boyfriend, or pressure from him or from other relatives such as parents). The law as it stands is able to, in a court of law, discern the situation a woman is in and act accordingly. It can choose to convict and penalise strongly, convict and reprove lightly, or acquit altogether.

The law being ideally balanced then, the only objection that anyone can have to this scenario is that they believe abortion to be something that should not be limited at all.

For those of us who believe in the right to life of all human beings, we can only applaud the way that the law here has served justice and mercy equally.”


Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child:

“We don’t know all the facts of the case, but we trust that the judge, in giving a suspended prison sentence, has tried to balance the seriousness of the crime and whatever mitigating circumstances there were.

The woman’s barrister, Paul Bacon, was completely wrong, however, to assert that what she did would have been legal in other parts of the UK. Although laws differ substantially, do-it-yourself abortion is a crime in any part of the UK. The purpose of our laws against abortion are good and clear: they are designed to protect both babies and mothers from the lethal effects of abortion.

While we all can sympathise with a woman who feels driven to illegal abortion through desperate circumstances, we must never lose sight of the fact that a baby boy, at about 10 to 12 weeks gestation, is dead and his body discarded in a rubbish bin. There are no circumstances that can justify the taking of an innocent human life.

The pills used to procure abortions are dangerous. An American study showed the death rate from infection following such an abortion has been 10 times higher than the death rate from infections following surgical abortion and 50 times more compared to childbirth. The drug used in the Northern Ireland case is known to have led to the deaths of at least 15 women worldwide, including Manon Jones from Bristol and Jessie-Maye Barlow from Staines.

The recent tragic case of Jade Rees, the young woman from Oldham in Manchester who took her own life following an abortion, underlines the reality that abortion can be emotionally traumatic as well. Any woman considering abortion needs to be told that there is help and support out there from crisis pregnancies centres, free of charge and with complete confidentiality.

The declining numbers of women travelling from Northern Ireland for abortion in Britain shows that more and more women here are turning away from abortion and seeking help to keep their babies.

For the sake of protecting women and children, public authorities responsible for upholding the law can no longer turn a blind eye to abortion advocates who incite women to endanger their own lives by turning to illegal abortion drugs.”



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