Mr Justice Cooke’s sentencing remarks from this morning at Leeds Crown Court:

Sentencing remarks: SARAH LOUISE CATT


1. You have pleaded guilty to administering Misoprostol to yourself with intent to procure your own miscarriage. You are entitled to credit for that plea and generously, I give you the full 1/3 credit although you maintained your innocence during police interviews, since you entered a plea at a relatively early point following charge. The starting point for my sentencing before discount for plea takes account of the aggravating features of this matter.


2. Whilst this is an offence which is rarely charged these days, the facts underlying it are unusual. The critical element of your offending is the deliberate choice made by you in the full knowledge of the due date for the birth of your child, to terminate the pregnancy at term or very close to it, in the full knowledge that termination after week 24 was unlawful and in the full knowledge that your child’s birth was imminent. This is so serious that only an immediate sentence of imprisonment will suffice. The sentence will be one of 8 years.


3. You ordered the Misoprostol on 14 April 2010 and it was delivered on the 10 May 2010. On the 21 May 2010 you enquired on the internet as to what would happen if you took Misoprostol at term. On the 26 May you enquired again on the net as to how soon the drug would take effect. As you also took an afternoon off work on the 25 May, it is a fair inference that you must have taken the drug somewhere around that time. You went on a family holiday on about the 27 May.


4. You told the man with whom you were having an affair of your pregnancy back in October 2009 and your last menstrual period would, on the basis of other evidence, including your own enquiries on the internet, have been about 19 August 2009. You were concerned to keep the knowledge of your pregnancy and your affair from your husband, but you had intermittent contact with the Marie Stopes Clinic website in January and February 2010 with a booking on the 16 March 2010 based on your statement to the clinic that your last menstrual period was in late November. You did not attend on the 16 March because on the previous day, you attended the British Pregnancy Advisory Service and were told that the scan showed pregnancy of 26 weeks and 3 days and that the 24 week period for lawful abortion had passed. You challenged this calculation and then attended a hospital where more sophisticated equipment produced a figure of 29 weeks and 5 days. A termination on the 12 May would be at about 38 weeks and 2 weeks later would be as near to term as makes no difference.


5. You told the Psychiatrist that you acted alone and took the drug whilst your husband was away, delivering the baby induced by the drug at home. You told the Psychiatrist that the child was a boy, was not breathing on birth and did not move – in other words it was still-born. You said you buried the body but have refused to disclose the location. You delivered the afterbirth and cleaned up the bathroom on your own, telling no-one what had taken place.


6. According to the pre-sentence report: “on discovering that she had exceeded the legal limit, Mrs Catt said she still pursued the abortion avenue, knowing that it was illegal. I discussed other possible options that Mrs Catt could have taken, such as keeping the baby; having the baby adopted; making a decision sooner. Mrs Catt said she explored all other possible options and discounted them.”


7. You are a woman who obtained sufficient A Levels to attend Newcastle University although you gave up your course in Mathematics there in your second year. You have experience of childbirth and of abortion and must have full knowledge of the developmental stages of the child in the womb as well as the lawful limits on abortion of which you were expressly told. You do not suffer from any mental disorder of any kind, as appears from the 27 page psychiatric report that I have read. I see no need for a report from a psychologist. This was a cold calculated decision that you took for your own convenience and in your own self interest alone.


8. In the past, when at University, you became pregnant but concealed this from your parents until delivery, after you had given up your university course. You attended hospital without receiving any antenatal care and gave up your daughter for adoption immediately on birth.


9. You entered into a relationship with your current husband, whom you married after 10 years in May 2009. In 2000, pregnant by him you had the pregnancy terminated, with his agreement, at about the legal limit. In 2002 you again sought a termination but you were told the pregnancy was too far advanced and you were duly delivered of a child on the 1 July 2002. In 2004 you attended hospital for delivery of a child, having concealed that pregnancy from your husband as he now is. That child was born in April of that year. You therefore are no stranger to the issues which surround childbirth, abortion and adoption.


10. Despite marrying your long-term partner in May 2009, it seems, on your own say-so, that you had an on/off 7 year affair with a work colleague before becoming pregnant. You clearly thought that the child was his as you told him, but not your husband, of the pregnancy in October 2009. He offered to leave his wife to start a family with you but you declined. You broke off the relationship in January telling him that there was no child and it was none of his business. You told the Probation Officer that it was not until March 2010 that you decided you wanted to remain with your husband and to have an abortion. You resumed the casual relationship with the man whom you considered had fathered your child in this affair, in June 2010 following the termination. You concealed the pregnancy from your husband as you had done once before, though he had been both supportive and understanding following the delivery of that child, unexpected as it was to him. He is still supportive of you now.


11. Concealment and deceit have played a part in your relationship with your parents, with previously employers from whom you stole in 1999 and with your husband. Throughout the police investigation, including 9 ½ hours of interview, you maintained the lie that you had undergone a legal termination within the period allowed by the Abortion Act, by the Marie Stopes Clinic and that you had destroyed the papers relating to it. You have also suggested that, when you took the Misoprostol, you thought that the birth would involve essentially blood and excrement – a suggestion I have to reject. A person of your intelligence, education and experience would know just how early on, a child’s characteristics and features are seen in the womb and the extent of a child’s development at 38-40 weeks, however inexact the calculation of the due date.


12. You could well have been charged under Section 1 of the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929 for destruction of a child capable of being born alive. Section 1(2) of that Act provides a presumption in law that if a woman is pregnant for 28 weeks, the child en ventre sa mere is capable of being born alive.


13. It makes little different that you have been charged with a different offence, since the gravamen of your conduct is the same and the maximum sentence for each offence is identical – life imprisonment. The question I have to consider is where on the scale or calendar of criminal offences your conduct lies.


14. What you did was to end the life of a child that was presumptively capable of being born alive, by inducing birth or miscarriage. I am not able to accept anything much that you have told others about what occurred but I bear in mind all that has been said on your behalf in mitigation, in particular the fact that you are a good parent to your 2 children. However, but for the drugs intentionally taken, there is no reason to believe that you would not have been delivered of a healthy boy. Had he been born safely within a matter of days, and had you killed him after birth, you would be facing a charge of murder. Had that been the case you would have faced life imprisonment and I would have to set a minimum term to be served in prison with a starting point of 15 years, less discount for the plea and any mitigating factors.


16. 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. What you have done is to rob an apparently healthy child en ventre sa mere, vulnerable and defenceless, of the life which he was about to commence. You are not charged with murder and I would be wrong to treat it as such as matter of law. Equally this is not manslaughter nor akin to it where the intention is not to cause death. Nor is it on a par with causing death by dangerous driving either, with its maximum sentence of 14 years, bearing in mind the calculated intentionality here.


17. In English Law, none of those offences could be committed in respect of an unborn child, but the gravamen of this offence is that, at whatever stage life can be said to begin, the child in the womb here was so near to birth that in my judgement all right thinking people would consider this offence more serious than manslaughter or any offence on the calendar other than murder.


18. With no real mitigation, no remorse that I can detect, though suffering emotional distress that any woman might suffer from the sequence of events which have taken place, I have to sentence on the basis that a substantial period of imprisonment is required, regardless of the effect on your family which I know will be considerable. As a matter of public policy and bearing in mind the need for deterrence, a long determinative sentence is required. There is no reason to believe that you would not act in the same way should similar circumstances arise but fortunately the chances of that are small, so that I do not consider it necessary further to consider the dangerous offender provisions of the 2003 Act.


19. I have had regard to the authority cited to me, namely the decision of Mr Justice McKinnon in 2007 in relation to the termination of a pregnancy at 7 ½ months. It is not comparable and I take a different view of the criminality involved here. I have had regard to Appleby and sentencing decisions in relation to manslaughter of a child but, as I have said, I see no analogous offence and must proceed on the basis of the seriousness of the offence as I see it in terms of culpability and consequences.


20. In my judgement the starting point taking into account all aggravating factors is 12 years, to which I apply a discount of one third which results in an 8 year determinative sentence.


21. Of this you will spend half in custody and half on licence subject to recall should you break the terms of that licence at any stage. You counsel will further explain the effect of this to you.




13 Responses to Leeds Crown Court: R v Sarah Catt – sentencing remarks of Mr Justice Cooke

  • Alice says:

    “The Abortion Act['s] . . . provisions . . . 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” – What is this particular statement in aid of?

  • Chris says:

    I read that statement as meaning that she would have had no difficulty procuring an abortion within the time limits, and the fact she didn’t was a factor against her, although I can see how the statement can be read otherwise. The judge suggests there was little guidance available for arriving at a sentence, so perhaps we can expect an appeal?

  • Rob C says:

    Is this the same man?

  • david says:

    Seems very reasonable to me. A judge who weighed up all the options and expressed them clearly. Just a shame Ms Catt didn’t think about how her two children would manage without her.

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  • Mary says:

    This is completely horrifying. I can’t decide what’s more shocking: the comments about the Abortion Act, the emphasis on her concealing her pregnancies from her parents and her husband, the assumption that “all right-thinking people” would see this as murder, or the disregarding of the sentence precedent.

    (Also, deterrence? Really? Yep, they’re ares floods of women consisting aborting their pregnancies two weeks before term and only deferred by the thought of a stiff sentence.)

    • Mary says:

      Could anyone with legal knowledge comment on the judge’s decision not to order a psychological report, believing the psychiatric report to be adequate? I know the difference between a psychologist and a psychiatrist, but what different role do these reports typically play in a court case?

  • Tm says:

    Sometimes I wonder how on earth the police even begin to investigate this kind of case. How were they tipped off? What counts as sufficient evidence in this case? I suppose those difficulties mean that there are many instances where the case wouldn’t make it to charging a suspect.

  • Annie says:

    The judge’s comments include background (previous termination, affair with colleague etc) which in this context is made to justify Sarah Catt’s guilt, in addition to the law on abortion. I agree with the previous comment on this site that the judge saying the 24-week abortions are “wrongly” allowed tells us something about this judge’s attitude, as does his point that she will get a prison sentence in spite of being a “good mother”. I hope there is an appeal. The police also issued a statement offering a character assassination.

    I have seen on other websites reactions along the lines of: people get shorter sentences for other harsh crimes such as rape. That was my immediate reaction when I heard the sentence on the news. The sentence is disproportionate, as if she is being sentenced for her whole past and judged for that too, in terms which seem reminiscent of ages-old condemnations of women and their sexuality.

  • EGG says:

    I couldn’t agree more with Mary. This case is quite extraordinary, not just for its sentencing but for the judge’s sentencing comments. Cooke deliberately ignored precedent set by McKinnon, made irrelevant comments about abortion, moral judgements about adultery and deceit and arrogant presumptions about what women who are pregnant know about their bodies.

    There should be a legal body that can review judges’ performance and judges should be vetted to make sure they don’t rely on personal religious beliefs when applying public law. Too many women have lost years of their lives thanks to certain judges’ poor sentencing and misconceptions about motherhood (ahem, Sally Cooper Clarke anyone?).

  • Jacques says:

    Mr Justice MacKinnon doesn’t set precedent, either the Court of Appeal or the sentencing council does. The most significant sentencing guideline in respect of the present offence is that Parliament has set a a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. That’s an indication that serious manifestations of this offence can be expected to attract a long sentence.

    When people say that Cooke should have follwed MacKinnon, even though he wasn’t bound to do so, what they really mean is “I agree with MacKinnon”. If the Cooke sentence had come first, and MacKinnon second, no doubt the same people would have praised MacKinnon for his “courage” in not following the earlier sentence, rather than suggesting (wrongly) that it was unconstitutional for him to depart from it. In any event, sentencing is peculiarly fact senstive, and there seem to be very few facts about the earlier case in the public domain.

    Be that as it may, Parliament has decided that this is a serious offence, with a serious maximum sentence. Entirely aside from any “moral judgments about adultery and deceit” by the judge (although some might say that these are things of which reasonable people are entitled to make a negative moral judgment (the implicit predicate of the quoted observation not being that moral judgments are objectionable per se)), this was obviously an offence at the higher end of the spectrum, as the incipient child was almost at full term. It was therefore almost certainly a sentinent organism, which could hear, think, move and feel pain, and would have been fully viable if delivered.

    The law protects foetuses at this stage of development, and I would be surprised if many people argued that this was an unreasonable position for the law to adopt. If, for example, this miscarriage had been procured by a third party (a jealous husband, say, who maliciously administered the drug to his wife believing she was carrying her cicisbeo’s child), would the general perception be that this was simply an offence against the mother? I don’t think so. I think the vast majority of people would consider that the incipient human being was a victim too. After all, people can and do go to gaol for harming animals. There is no logical difficulty in considering it a serious wrong to kill a foetus close to full term.

    This leaves the question of whether a mother has a licence to behave differently. Here, a balance has to be struck between the mother’s bodily integrity and the fact, at some point, the collection of cells that she carries develops an life of its own. At the moment, the position our law (usually) adopts is that the point at which the foetus attains marginal capacity to live outside the womb is the fulcrum. That seems a reasonable position, even if one could advocate others.

    It is generally accepted that once a child emerges from the birth canal, then it is a really serious crime to kill it. At best infanticide, but usually murder. If the mother had throttled the child on delivery then, absent compelling psychiatric mitigation, I do not think people would be criticising Mr Justice Cooke. In our law, it remains a different offence to kill the potential child before its passage down the birth canal. But that does not mean that the offence isn’t a serious one. If the child is viable, what is the magic in whether it has killed before or after delivery?

    (It would be interesting to know the legal position if the drug the mother administered in this case had caused the child to be delivered alive but die after birth – whether that might have constituted murder. In the present case, we only have the Ms Catt’s word that the child was not alive on delivery. It does not seem as if her word is worth a great deal, and she refused to indicate the whereabouts of the body.)

    I share in the view that Mr Justice Cooke emphasised some things of dubious relevance in his remarks, and perhaps they reflect his Christian faith (although I bridle at the implication of some that only Christians would worry about killing fully viable children shortly before the point of delivery – it seems to me that if a Christian asserted this to be the case, non-Christians would find that stunningly offensive). But daft remarks do not invalidate a sentence, as David Green rightly observed in the case of the “courageous” burglar. And the statements may have reflected points made in mitigation. For example, it *sounds* as if there might have been a suggestion that it was relevant to sentence that abortion is lawful to 24 weeks. If so, that was an extraordinary non-sequitur which the judge was right to reject. (His comment that the Abortion Act is routinely misapplied to allow abortion in circumstances not mandated by the legislation was however gratuitous, notwithstanding that it was factually correct). As to references to the history of deceit, it seems to me that they were of some relevance, albeit limited, in that they explain why the judge was not accepting everything that had been said to him in mitigation, where what was said was incapable of independent verification.

    But stepping back, this reduces to a series of simple questions. Was what Ms Catt did a crime? Yes – she admitted that it was, and that in any event is what Parliament has decided. Was it a serious crime? Yes. No one would contend the contrary if the incipient child had been destroyed by a person other than its mother. Does the fact the crime was perpetrated by the mother make a diference? No. A mother has no more licence to kill a child just before term than she has to expose it on Snowdon immediately after delivery. In the circumstances, it seems to me that a lengthy custodial sentence was inevitable.

  • Jacques says:

    I would add that Ms Catt’s history of deceit and concealment was relevant to sentence for another reason. It added to the impression that the crime was committed with forethought, by a person motivated by a selfish desire not to be revealed in her own wrongdoing. This is surely, for sentencing purposes, a relevant distinction from, for example, a person who commits a crime while in the throes of serious depression, or without forethought, or as a result of pressure from a third party like a violent and jealous partner. This is not to say that I think the judge expressed himself flawlessly, but I do not think it right to suggest either that he must have been on a personal crusade to impose “Christian” values.

  • Valhalla says:

    Judge was more interested in wagging a morality finger and displaying his Christian ethos rather then dispensing justice.

    That woman needs psychological help not jail.

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