The UK and Europe, we are often told, are much more sensible than the United States when it comes to attitudes and policy surrounding reproduction. In part because they don’t have to deal with the strong influence of radical religious fundamentalism and pro-life extremism (that has yet to be eradicated from the US), they are better able to have moderate, thoughtful policies in these areas.
Interesting, then, that a 35 year-old British woman has been sentenced to eight years in jail for having an abortion. 39 weeks pregnant with the child of someone other than her husband, she missed the legal deadline to have an elective abortion and instead took a drug bought online to kill the child. If abortion in the case of rape is a case where almost all of us are sympathetic with a pro-choice position, then this kind of case (though similarly rare) is one in which almost all of us are sympathetic with a pro-life position. That prenatal child deserves justice, and (in part) this means equal protection of the law.
But could we ever imagine this kind of sentence or prosecution happening in the United States? Could our sense of justice for the most vulnerable ever trump our robust (and, perhaps better, “overwhelming”) focus on the autonomous individual? In which direction does our extremism on this issue cut when compared to the UK and Europe?
P.S. Interesting framing from the judge in the case, too, who apparently said that the woman “had robbed the baby of the life it was about to have” and “the seriousness of the crime lay between manslaughter and murder.” Did she get 8 years in prison for killing something other than a human person? Or get 8 years in prison for refusing to sustain the life of someone acknowledged to be a human person? Something else?
What strikes me as odd about this post is that no group is more adamant in the United States than “pro-lifers” about not holding women legally responsible for procuring abortions. I recently had an extended exchange over on Mirror of Justice in which no one on the pro-life side would contemplate any legal penalty or restriction on a woman who procures an abortion, not even a nominal fine waived until the third offense. It seems to be pro-life dogma that the law must remain silent on a woman’s right to have an abortion. All the law may do is make it as difficult as possible for her to obtain one by severely punishing abortionists.
In this case, the facts seem to be murky. I am going to go out on a limb and say there is no “poison” a woman a woman could take in late pregnancy to kill the baby that would not also kill the woman. There is no such thing as a “miscarriage” that late in pregnancy. (Any unexpected or induced labor after an infant is viable results in a “premature birth,” not a miscarriage.) Clearly what she did was induce labor, give birth, and kill the baby. They seem to have no proof of that, however, and the conviction seems to have been based on a confession.
Abortion after 24 weeks in England is illegal except if two doctors agree that there is a significant threat to the life or health of the mother. The judge said, “The critical element of your offending is the deliberate choice made by you, in full knowledge of the due date of your child, to terminate the pregnancy at somewhere close to term, if not actually at term, with the full knowledge that termination after week 24 was unlawful and in full knowledge your child’s birth was imminent.” She seems to have been charged with illegal abortion, although no story I have found says what the actual charges were or exactly what she was convicted of.
Considering that the pregnancy was at term, and considering the other medical facts, I think in the United States this woman might very well have been prosecuted for infanticide, not abortion. It seems to be the case, though, that women who commit infanticide in the United States are treated very leniently, so I can imagine a prosecution, but not an 8-year-sentence.