Amie Gallagher gives her take on the reality facing people who need abortions in the North.
Women in the North have no vote in the Repeal referendum. But we all will be glued to our screens to see the result. If the Yes campaign succeeds, it may have an enormous impact on politics here and in the process, reinvigorate the movement for abortion rights on this side of the border.
Women’s rights have not developed in the North under our devolved (currently non-functioning) government. The conflict and resulting political situation has affected women greatly. Northern politicians have been allowed to stoke up sectarian tension as a way to deflect from legislating on important issues, and women have been left behind.
Though part of the UK, the 1967 Abortion Act was never extended to Northern Ireland, so the 157 year-old Offences Against the Person Act still stands. Women face life imprisonment, the harshest criminal penalty in Europe, under a law that was enacted before the lightbulb was even invented. Abortion is only lawful if it’s necessary to preserve the life of the woman or there is a risk of real and serious adverse effect on her physical and/or mental health, which is either long term or permanent. This results in an average of only 40 women per year being granted a termination locally.
This is why over 700 women travel to England each year for an abortion from Northern Ireland, a number which only includes those who gave Northern Irish addresses when they travelled. The numbers accessing abortion pills and carrying out medical abortions at home is unknown, however between 2011 and 2015, Northern Irish police are estimated to have seized 3000 abortion pills.
While official statistics are being manipulated consistently by the No side of the Repeal campaign in the South, it is worth remembering that the majority of women who travel are in committed relationships and 90% of abortions are carried out before 12 weeks, with the majority under nine weeks.
It’s the emotional, financial and logistical barriers to travelling which find women accessing abortion services later in pregnancy. More than half of women who accessed abortions in England last year were using contraception and around the same amount are already mothers. More women who access abortion services are over 35 than those under 20.
Though these facts are easily accessible, the myths around abortion continue, even within government. To date there have been four major debates in the NI Assembly on abortion whereby factual evidence has been largely absent, replaced instead by religion, stigma, and a portrayal of women as vulnerable and in need of ‘protection’. Until recently there were no guidelines for health and social care professionals dealing with crisis pregnancies—although a termination could be carried out if there was a threat to a woman’s physical or mental health—leaving medical professionals unsure when to act or if they could at all. Thanks to lobbying from the Family Planning Association, guidelines were issued and revised up to 2016. However women still have to travel to England in the cases of Fatal Foetal Abnormality.
Reform of Laws?
The abortion restrictions in the North are extremely unpopular and have faced a lot of criticism from the general public. A rally of 3000 marched as part of Rally for Choice in Belfast last October. Judicial reviews have proposed allowing abortion in cases of rape or incest as well as Fatal Foetal Abnormality, but those were blocked. The High Court ruled that abortion law in NI is incompatible with human rights. But in response, the then Minister of Justice, David Ford argued that lack of legal certainty would lead to ‘abortion on demand’, a statement that exposed just how much contempt he has for women. The same review criticised the snail’s pace of progress in how Northern politicians deal with contentious issues.
What many people don’t know is that health professionals can inform women of information, which is widely available, should they want to explore their options. Counselling and advice services should be made available, even to women who had abortions elsewhere. Sadly, this is not the experience many women have with their doctors and medical staff. While conscientious objection is allowed in Northern Ireland, professionals are supposed to arrange for someone to take over their patient consultation and must not imply or express disapproval.
In my own experiences of pregnancy and labour, I’ve been met with disapproval and a refusal to explain my options up to and including the birth of my children. Decisions are made without consent or understanding. We often experience discrimination across the health sector, are often dismissed or ignored.
In the past few years, two cases in the North have received considerable media attention. One was of a 19 year old woman who carried out an abortion with pills at home. Her housemates reported her to police. The details of the case highlight a tragedy, as a vulnerable woman with mental health needs was failed. She was prosecuted and received a suspended sentence. Another case involves the mother of a 15 year old who was reported by a GP after procuring pills for her daughter. That mother accessing help was branded a criminal. The current guidelines state that a health professional can balance the need for confidentiality with the obligation to report unlawful terminations. While it remains a grey area, people who access help may find themselves in the criminal justice system. This adds to the fear and silence of women in need, discouraging them from accessing medical help if they need it.
The UK government have expressed their commitment to improving reproductive rights globally through the Strategic Vision for Women and Girls, Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women and other policies. Somehow their neglect of the North which falls under their jurisdiction has been allowed to continue.
Another convention highlighting the situation North and South is the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Countries sign up to the convention stating a commitment to improve women’s rights on a whole range of areas and it studies and publishes reviews on each country’s progress. After calls from civic society groups for an inquiry into abortion in the North, the committee found in 2016 that the ban on abortion constitutes violence that may amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. This is a systemic violation of women’s rights. The vice chair of CEDAW said that forcing a woman to carry a fatal foetal abnormality to term amounted to unjustified state sanctioned violence. These are terms we are used to hearing in conflict. They recommended abortion be allowed in the cases of Fatal Foetal Abnormality, sexual crime, and if there’s a threat to a woman’s health.
Additionally, in 2017, the UK government declared that women from the North could access abortion free of charge on the NHS in England, and Scotland and Wales followed suit. While this removes part of the financial burden it’s not enough. Migrants, refugees and asylum seekers are still ignored. Women with disabilities can’t travel. Those with families can’t arrange childcare. Women in abusive relationships can’t leave. The stigma and secrecy makes it difficult for a woman to make a journey unnoticed, even if the financial barrier has been removed.
Goretti Horgan, social policy lecturer at the University of Ulster, is currently carrying out research on women who have used abortion pills at home. She found that even with free access on NHS England, most women would still prefer to use pills in the comfort of their own home–mainly for the reasons mentioned above. Booking flights and accommodation and making a journey across the Irish sea is not accessible. This year over 100 MPs wrote to the then home secretary Amber Rudd, calling for abortion to be made available locally. Rudd tried to argue that the Istanbul Convention on Violence Against Women doesn’t specify how close abortion services in a state must take place to women who need them. However, the committees’ inquiry mentioned above states the UK is not absolved of responsibility to ensure access. Devolution is no excuse.
Post Conflict Society
As a post conflict society, the North would benefit from being included in the UN Women Peace and Security activities, which details steps for the advancement of women’s rights and acknowledges the higher levels of poverty, ill mental health and oppression women in conflict face. The UK government refuses to allow this.
While the DUP continue their Tory coalition, there will be no change from “above”. While happy to express their commitment to unionism and all things British, this comes to a halt with abortion and equal marriage. The DUP are right wing religious fundamentalists. Ironically though, abortion is an issue that our politicians seem to agree on, across community divides. Sinn Féin, like Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, have caught on to the mood of the people and changed their position very recently, although they are still in no way fully pro-choice. Interestingly, the SDLP are for decriminalisation but against legalisation in the North, another example of a party happy to export the problem. Other parties have allowed party members a conscience vote, and both SDLP leaders have now been pushed to personally support this option. Politicians in the North rely on a continuation of sectarian tensions and have got away with addressing serious issues for the past 20 years. It’s impossible to even find policies on many issues.
A Way Forward?
So where does that leave us today? Belfast City Council recently passed a motion on the decriminalisation of abortion. People Before Profit have launched a petition in Derry to show the public’s support for a decriminalisation motion and council support of repealing the 8th.
As a youth leader for young women, I personally emailed every councillor in the Derry and Strabane District Council asking if they support decriminalisation. So far I’ve had few replies. Those who have replied were mixed, but some were positive and there’s potential to build on that. A recurring phrase is that abortion is an “emotive and sensitive issue” in political circles. It is amusing that in a country where politicians exploit victims of conflict and unthinkable tragedy, they avoid talking about abortion because it’s just ‘too emotional’.
Times are changing, however. If Ireland stands with women on May 25th and repeals the 8th amendment, it will have a huge impact on the North. Momentum will continue to build in the North to make free, safe, legal access to abortion a reality in all of Ireland.