Fact Check: Are Women Being Investigated for Miscarriage and Stillbirth? by Alithea Williams

Alithea Williams talking at a discussion about Pills by Post.

In recent weeks, proponents of decriminalising abortion have suggested that the current law has led to an increasing number of women being investigated by the police after suffering a miscarriage or stillbirth. This was highlighted by a recent article in the Times. But is there any truth to these claims?

According to Tommys, a UK charity focusing on miscarriage and stillbirth, 1 in 6 known pregnancies end in miscarriage and 1 in 250 ends in stillbirth. If all women who suffered a miscarriage or stillbirth were subject to invasive investigations, the public would be well aware of it, as it is more than likely to have affected someone they know personally.

Where cases are being investigated, it will be because something has alerted healthcare staff to potential wrongdoing or safety concerns.

What Do the Police Say?

Speaking to the Times, a spokesperson for the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) said that “unexpected pregnancy loss is not something which is routinely investigated by police as potential illegal abortion.” They continued:

“An investigation would only be initiated where there is credible information to suggest criminal activity, and this would often be as a result of concerns raised from medical professionals. It would be at the discretion of the senior investigating officer leading the case to determine which reasonable lines of inquiry to follow, which may include toxicology or digital data.”

Why Now?

Pills-by-post, or telemedicine, abortion has been commonplace since being brought in as an emergency measure in 2020, and subsequently made permanent policy in 2022. More than half of abortions in the UK are now taking place in the pregnant woman’s home, using abortion drugs that she self-administers. This causes significant problems with regulating medical abortion. Since there is no requirement to date the pregnancy with an ultrasound scan ahead of providing the abortion drugs, this policy has led to an increased number of women having medical abortions past the 10-week limit for this policy and even the 24-week legal limit for abortion.

This was evident in the case of Carla Foster who had an abortion between 32 and 34 weeks pregnant (that is, nearly full term) after misleading an abortion provider as to the gestational stage of her pregnancy.

Because this policy is open to abuse, it has increased the potential for illegal abortions to take place.

Are Women Being Investigated for Miscarriage and Stillbirth?

In the Commons debate on 28 November 2023, Stella Creasy MP stated, “Indeed, we are increasingly seeing… any woman who has had a miscarriage or stillbirth being at risk of being dragged into a criminal investigation.”

To back up these claims, Ms. Creasy referred to the cases of two “young teenagers”. The young woman referred to as ‘Megan’ in the debate was 15 years old at the time of her stillbirth, which occurred at 28-weeks’ gestation. The hospital staff contacted the police because they had reason to believe she had obtained abortion drugs online. They were aware that she had previously contacted the abortion provider BPAS, but no abortion was performed because she was past the 24-week legal limit. This information meant there was sufficient concern to warrant an investigation. A post-mortem found that her baby had died of natural causes and the case was dropped.

In the other case, “another young teenager, unaware she was pregnant, delivered a stillborn child.” Domestic violence and abuse are often screened for and identified at pre-natal appointments. The fact that this young woman only discovered she was pregnant while miscarrying would have raised concerns for healthcare staff regarding her safety and wellbeing, including by whom she became pregnant under the legal age of consent. It is appropriate for the police to investigate situations like these.

Clare Murphy, chief executive of BPAS, described a request from the police for patients’ data following the discovery of human placenta in the woods in Southampton. She suggested such a request was an invasion of patient privacy. But, in a case such as this, the police would have significant and valid concerns for the wellbeing of any woman who felt the need to conceal the birth or stillbirth of her child and would want to identify her promptly.

Who is the Subject of the Investigation?

Just because there is an investigation following a miscarriage or stillbirth does not mean that the woman herself is the subject of that investigation. The police may be investigating wrongdoing against the woman, perhaps by a partner or family member. In cases like this, one could imagine it is important to obtain a woman’s medical records to prove that she did not request the abortion drugs herself.

And it has become evident that some people are taking advantage of the pills-by-post scheme in order to obtain abortion drugs with the intent of giving them to a pregnant woman without her consent.

In 2020, Georgia Day was having an affair with a man who was expecting a child by another woman, his long-term partner. This man tried to pressure his partner into having an abortion, and even offered money to his female friends if they obtained abortion drugs for him. Georgia agreed to do it for free, and lied to doctors over the phone, saying she was pregnant. She was sent the abortion drugs in the post.

The plan would have been to then drug the pregnant woman with the abortion pills without her knowledge or consent. Georgia, now 23, pleaded guilty to conspiring to procure the physical means to procure a miscarriage. The baby’s father was acquitted after a trial.

Creating a Climate of Fear

It is incredibly misleading to suggest that any woman who suffers the tragedy of miscarriage or stillbirth is now at risk of being investigated by the police on suspicion of having an illegal abortion. To do so is to create a climate of fear for pregnant women, in order to push the agenda of decriminalising abortion. Where investigations take place, the police have legitimate concerns that the law was broken or that the pregnant woman is at risk – concerns most likely raised by the health professionals charged with her care. The number of investigations, and indeed breaches of the law, regarding abortion have increased as a result of the pills-by-post policy, which is impossible to regulate effectively and wide-open to abuse.

Alithea Williams

Alithea Williams is the Public Policy manager at Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC). More information about SPUC and their work can be found by visiting: https://www.spuc.org.uk