Comment Writer Deeta Mahbubani discusses considerations in law and privacy in the reporting of abortions

Final Year BSc Economics and Politics student, driven by a love for writing and literature.
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In a recent directive, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) has stirred up controversy by advocating for healthcare professionals to refrain from reporting suspected illegal abortions to law enforcement authorities. The rationale behind this bold recommendation centres on the conviction that involving the police not only clashes with the broader public interest but also unjustly places a spotlight on vulnerable women.

Collaboratively developed with other healthcare groups, the RCOG’s guidance places significant emphasis on patient confidentiality. The directive encourages medical practitioners to obtain explicit consent before divulging any private medical details. It further suggests that involving law enforcement should generally be avoided unless there’s an immediate risk of serious harm or death. The challenge is this: how can we navigate the delicate balance between safeguarding patient privacy and fulfilling legal obligations?

Involving the police not only clashes with the broader public interest but also unjustly places a spotlight on vulnerable women.

In 2020, Bethany Cox was formally acquitted of charges related to an illegal abortion under the outdated 1861 Offences Against the Person Act after three long years of investigation. Cox, who pleaded not guilty, did not attend the hearing due to extensive suffering over the prolonged legal ordeal. The case highlighted concerns about the cruelty of outdated laws and sparked discussions for legal reform, emphasising the need for prompt re-evaluation of severe penalties for illegal abortion in England and Wales.

Similarly, Carla Foster, a mother of three, admitted to illegally procuring her abortion during the Covid-19 lockdown, underscoring challenges in abortion laws. Initially sentenced to 28 months in prison, a court of appeal judge deemed her case deserving of ‘compassion, not punishment,’ reducing the sentence to 14 months, suspended. Foster’s reliance on the ‘pills by post’ scheme highlights the tough choices women may face. Advocates, like Clare Murphy and Jemima Olchawski, stress the need for urgent abortion law reform to prevent unjust criminalisation and emphasise the trauma faced by women like Foster. This case underscores the call for a compassionate approach in navigating evolving landscapes of women’s reproductive choices.

The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) and RCOG voice serious concerns about potential drawbacks associated with increased reporting. They point to a rising number of police investigations, particularly impacting vulnerable women, after later gestation abortions and pregnancy loss. This grim reality forces us to confront the pressing question of how much weight we place on patient privacy versus our legal responsibilities.

Shifting our gaze to the United States, the Supreme Court’s recent decision to overturn Roe v. Wade hangs ominously over the landscape of abortion laws. Such a shift grants states the authority to control or outright ban abortion, resulting in a haphazard patchwork of legal rules across the country. The potential consequences of limited access to legal abortion are not trivial—they may compel women to travel great distances for reproductive healthcare, potentially resorting to unsafe alternatives. 

They point to a rising number of police investigations, particularly impacting vulnerable women

This decision not only jeopardises women’s reproductive rights but also intensifies social and economic disparities. Women with fewer resources and limited access to healthcare are encountering disproportionate challenges in exercising their reproductive choices. The threat of restricted abortion access raises concerns about a two-tiered system, linking the ability to access safe reproductive healthcare to geographical location and socioeconomic status.

At its core, RCOG’s guidance, coupled with the stories of individuals like Bethany Cox and Carla Foster, underscores an unwavering commitment to patient confidentiality. This commitment propels a crucial question into the foreground – should we, as a society, reconsider our approach? Critics, predominantly from organisations like the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children and Right To Life UK, express apprehensions about potential compromises in public trust and oversight, particularly in cases involving coercion or abuse. The inherent challenge here requires an unflinching examination of our societal priorities. Can we forge a solution that robustly upholds women’s rights in this complex ethical and legal landscape? Even with the challenges ahead, I remain optimistic that we, as a society, can find a way to respect patient privacy while still upholding the essential rights of women.

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