Case of Self-Induced Late Abortion Raises Troubling Questions About British Laws

Last week a 35-year-old British woman was given an eight-year jail sentence for causing her own abortion one week before full-term.

Sarah Catt, from North Yorkshire, England, had, earlier in 2009, tried to obtain a legal abortion at a clinic but, at 30 weeks, had been told she was too far along. Catt was 39-weeks pregnant when she self-administered Misoprostol, procured over the internet from India, which caused her to miscarry. Catt then claimed the baby was stillborn, but has refused to reveal the location of the body. She pled guilty in July to administering a poison with intent to procure a miscarriage. Sentencing her to eight years in prison, the judge, Mr. Justice Jeremy Cooke, said that Catt had made a “deliberate and calculated decision” to end her pregnancy. He added that Catt had robbed the baby of the life it was about to have and said the seriousness of the crime lay between manslaughter and murder.

Evidence presented in court suggested that Catt had a troubled history of pregnancy and childbirth: she had previously given up a child for adoption in 1999; had one legal termination; tried to terminate another pregnancy but missed the legal limit; and concealed another pregnancy from her husband before the child’s birth. Commenting on the case, advocacy group Abortion Rights said:

This is a sad and unusual case and one that highlights the desperation women can feel when faced by an unwanted pregnancy and when they feel their options are closed.

The upper legal time limit for abortion in this country is 24 weeks in most cases, and while we do not condone anyone operating outside the law, the case underlines how vital it is for women to have access to safe, legal abortion as early as possible in pregnancy.

Sarah Catt is clearly a very troubled individual, with a complex medical history. An eight year jail term in such a case is disproportionate.

Women who find themselves in what seem like impossible circumstances must be treated with understanding and compassion, and offered treatment if appropriate, not threatened with prosecution.

Compassion was lacking in much of the media coverage of the case, however, with many outlets focusing on the leading investigator’s description of her as “cold and calculating and (having) shown no remorse or given an explanation for what she did.” Several news outlets chose to focus on the fact that the pregancy was a result of an extra-maritial affair.

The case raises difficult questions about the legal rights of pregnant women in Great Britain. In his sentencing remarks, the judge said:

There is no mitigation available by reference to the Abortion Act, whatever view one takes of its provisions which are, wrongly, liberally construed in practice so as to make abortion available essentially on demand prior to 24 weeks with the approval of registered medical practitioners.

The judge’s (who has since been revealed to be a member of a Christian charity, which has campaigned for more restrictive abortion laws) comments on the “wrongful” interpretation of the Abortion Act of 1967 highlights the fact that the law does not legally address the rights of pregnant women; it simply allows legal access to abortion under certain circumstances. Essentially British women have access to legal abortion only when two doctors agree that continuing the pregancy would be a risk to the physical or mental health of the woman. That abortion is, in practice, available on demand in Great Britain is through a loophole that some worry may close with the rise of anti-choice rhetoric in the country.

The ruling comes at a time of increasing anxiety for British pro-choice activists. At the end of summer a cabinet reshuffle gave Conservative anti-choice MP Jeremy Hunt the role of Health Minister (in 2008 Hunt voted to reduce the legal time limit for abortion from 24 weeks to 12).

Anti-choice protests, too, which were once rare in Great Britain, have been steadily increasing; the anti-choice group Abort67 was just last week cleared by Brighton Magistrates Court of public order offenses for displaying material that is ‘threatening, abusive or insulting,’ and of directly confronting clients outside a Brighton clinic. Commenting on this verdict,  Abortion Rights said:

This verdict demonstrates that the current law is inadequate to protect women from intimidation by hard-line anti-abortion activists. It will be viewed as a green light for them to continue their aggressive campaign tactics.

The Sarah Catt case underscores how important it remains for women to be able to access abortion services, and to be guaranteed privacy and safety, within the legal time frame.

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  • marlowe28

    I am full of sympathy for any woman who faces an unwanted pregnancy but this woman’s defense should have been based on her mental health issues. She lives in a country that has free and easy access to abortion. She’s been pregnant before and accessed that system before. She’s not a poor sixteen-year-old living in Mississippi who doesn’t even know what it means when she stops having periods. This is a disturbed woman. Confinement to a psychiatrict hospital and a period of chemical sterilization seems more appropriate.

  • ellen-mary

    Several distortions of medical fact here:

    Near term, Cytotec does not induce Miscarriage! Miscarriage becomes StillBirth WAY before that point AND if she really just took Misoprostal, there is no *medical* reason that wouldn’t just produce a *Birth*, it is used in the hospital to produce live Births regularly? (Not w/o risk to the mother but I digress!)

    So w/o a body . . . This may well have actually been a live birth & infanticide, medically unless she also took something that is not mentioned here . . .

  • big-softy

    I think an 8 year sentence seems about fair, troubled individual or not.

    One week before term is pretty much only a slap on the arse before you have a person.


    We’re lucky enough to have de facto abortion on demand in the UK, and as much as I support a woman’s right to choose, I’d like to think that there is some sort of consensus on a need for an upper limit.  And along with the Finns, the UK has some of the easiest and longest availability in Europe at 24 weeks.


    This is an isolated incident over here as illegal abortion just isn’t necessary in the UK, and this case seems more about a lack of mental health support than an abortion issue.


    And since the author Karen Gardiner is an ex-pat, and has demonstrated her knowledge of our laws on this subject, she should be ashamed of herself for sensationalising this piece and insinuating that it’s about Abortion, when in reality it’s about an abortion.

  • achurray

    God have mercy on us. praying for this women and all women considering abortions… please consder the child.. its crazy how this is disgustng to people, and that it’s cause to question her mental health, but abortion a few weeks earliar is considered perffectly ok? peace and prayers