Was Sarah Catt’s sentence justified?

This article was originally written for the Brighton Feminist Collective.

In September, Sarah Catt was sentenced under section 58 to eight years’ imprisonment for procuring her own miscarriage. When she was close to term, she bought the drug misoprostol, commonly used to induce labour in pregnant women, and took it in her home. She later told police the baby was stillborn. Although it is not illegal to induce your own pregnancy and give birth unattended in your own home, it is an offence secretly to dispose of a child’s body after it is born, under section 60 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861.

However, Catt was not charged with disposing of a stillborn child’s body. She was instead charged with aborting a baby beyond the 24-week legal limit, the judge determining that Catt’s intent was to abort, not to induce labour. The judge, Mr Justice Cooke, also 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.”

I urge you to read that again: “…wrongly, liberally construed in practice so as to make abortion available essentially on demand…” It may be surprising to hear a judge expand so far beyond the remit of a case; however, Cooke’s pronouncement appears less surprising once you know that he is vice-president of the Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship. The LCF lobby the government on abortion, and their former Director of Public Policy, Andrea Minichiello Williams, said in 2008 that abortion is the work of the devil. One wonders whether Catt would have received the same sentence from a judge without such a vehement opposition to abortion law.

Of course, the media are doing some sentencing of their own. Not content with reporting the facts on a complicated case, tabloids and broadsheets alike have honed in on Catt’s personal life. The affair she was having. The children she had already had. Her previous abortion. As if her previous decisions about her body or her relationships shed any light on her decision to induce labour (or, have an illegal abortion). The Daily Mail, predictably, indicated their attitude with the headline: “Eight years for the cheating wife who used drugs bought online to abort baby TWO days before it was due to be born.”

The Mail also referred to the drug Catt bought as ‘poison.’ Doctors might dispute that. In 2010, an Australian couple were in court charged with a similar offence; Professor Nicholas Fisk, giving an expert testimonial, explained that misoprostol is a commonly prescribed drug, and as this article notes, it is on the World Health Organisation’s essential medicines list for (amongst other uses) labour induction. The couple in this case were acquitted.

It is unclear why Sarah Catt made the decision she did. But, as feminists, we should be concerned that the law can be so moulded to fit the political vagaries of whichever judge presides over a case. We should also be concerned that the media are framing Catt’s decision as one influenced by an ‘immoral’ lifestyle. When access to early and safe abortions is being attacked by government itself, and when NHS services are being threatened, we should be thinking about the web of societal and medical obstacles which might lead to more women ending up in Sarah Catt’s position. Simply pushing for legal reform will not help women access the support they need; too often these reforms are discussed without listening to women’s voices, and leave substantive access problems untouched. Sarah Catt has been held up by the press as the archetypal bad mother, a cheater and a liar who wanted to kill her baby. Her story is more than that. It asks of us, what led this woman to make such a decision? And how can we stop this from happening again?


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