Next week, abortion will be decriminalised in the North if Stormont is not re-established. But with the DUP still intent on restricting access, and Sinn Féin fast backtracking on abortion rights, Fiona Ferguson argues that Stormont and the big parties cannot be trusted on this issue.
It looks likely that many of us will celebrate the decriminalisation of abortion from Westminster next week. The only thing that could stop it is the re-establishment of Stormont—the same institution that oversaw an effective abortion ban, forcing women to travel for terminations or risk taking illegal abortion pills.
A campaign to crack down on such illegal abortion in the North, led by the Attorney General and the PSNI, had been stepped up in recent years which resulted in a spate of arrests, investigations, searches of property, possession confiscations and court cases.
The decriminalisation of abortion means that no one else will be put into the back of a police car, questioned or dragged through the courts for procuring an abortion. And new guidelines issued by the Northern Ireland Office confirmed that there will be a moratorium on any ongoing cases.
For one mother in particular, that moratorium is very important. She is due to face the courts in just two weeks’ time, having purchased abortion pills for her young daughter. If decriminalisation is enacted from Westminster on October 21, she will be spared that experience, and the risk of having the law book thrown at her.
The importance of decriminalisation cannot be overstated. It removes the ability of the state to repress bodily autonomy through the justice system. It protects women in crisis pregnancies who are unable to travel for an abortion because of poverty, lack of citizenship, controlling or violent relationships, and more.
But decriminalisation is only the first step towards reproductive justice for the North. The next battle—to decide how abortion is regulated or restricted in future—is fast approaching.
A period of consultation will begin almost immediately after October 21 when the Westminster amendment takes effect, and though we are yet to hear what the exact terms of the consultation will be, it is imperative that the demands for choice and free, safe, legal and local access are heard.
If we were to remove the criminalisation of abortion, only to impose very limiting restrictions from Stormont, then many of the same systemic barriers to abortion would remain. When beginning to look at how abortion services should be offered to people in the North, we should focus on removing as many of the socio-economic barriers which prevent access as possible.
There are lessons to be learned from across the border, where the mighty referendum vote overturned the 8th Amendment, which had effectively banned abortion in most cases by equating the life of a mother to that of her foetus.
The legislation which followed the referendum result is limited, as was the rollout of services. Abortions are only permitted before 12 weeks gestational period, for one, and the quality of services is very dependent on location.
Access is often limited in rural communities, for working class women, and those in communities where anti-choice picketing is allowed to interfere with the ability of doctors to perform reproductive healthcare safely or effectively, as highlighted by Steph Hanlon for Rebel.
Systemic barriers were put in place too, such as the three-day mandatory waiting period after a woman has her initial consultation. Intended to allow the woman to consider her choices (something which is not required of any other medical procedure!), Hanlon outlines the impact it has in reality:
…any number of events…can mean that the mandated second appointments aren’t rescheduled until almost a week after the first. For some that is too long, and passes the cut-off date. The inability of others to replan and pay for further child care or days off work is too great an impediment. Those without remaining statutory holidays have to lie to their bosses, and it is times like these when the lingering attitude of the state that implemented the 8th amendment can be felt.’
It is immeasurably better that the South of Ireland has some legal access to abortion, and that the numbers being forced to travel have been reduced, and indeed that Ireland shouldn’t again, now that the 8th has been repealed, have another woman experience what Savita Halappanavar did. But the new legislation remains a far cry from the right to choose.
Best international practice
Elsewhere, internationally, we can see where abortion services are done much better. In Canada, for example, abortion is not dealt with in legal terms at all—it is strictly a medical matter and regulated as such. It is also funded. The result is a reducing amount of abortions happening annually (since 2011), and less ‘late’ abortions per pregnant person than the UK and the US. Only 0.59% of abortions in Canada happen after 20 weeks and the majority happen within 9 weeks.
Indeed, anyone concerned about the possibility of ‘late’ abortions in the North should look at the facts: access to proper sex education in schools, free contraception, NHS provided reproductive healthcare and the removal of stigma around abortion, all contribute to fewer, safer, and earlier abortions. The restriction of abortion, on the other hand, has not been shown to reduce the amount of abortions taking place, only to increase the amount of illegal or unsafe abortions.
Moreover, and as is the case around the world, the majority of ‘late’ abortions (which are a tiny minority of all abortions, of course) are the result of fatal foetal abnormalities or where the mother’s life is at risk. Situations whereby the denial of access to termination would be inhumane in the least.
Pregnant people should be able to access the reproductive services when they need them, where they need them, and in a way which facilitates them to make informed decisions about their bodies and their futures.
That can be done here in the North by allowing medical professionals to organise the provision of services through the NHS, where legal, regulatory and professional controls already exist.
Why we can’t rely on Stormont
It does not appear at this stage that Sinn Féin and the DUP will arrive at a last minute deal which would see Stormont re-established and the Westminster amendments to decriminalise abortion and legalise equal marriage overturned.
But it is likely that the issue of regulation of abortion is returned to Stormont for legislation. And despite the fact that the majority of people in the North support the Westminster amendment to decriminalise, and more liberal access to abortion, the same cannot be said for the parties elected to the hill.
Only two of the eight parties are ardently pro-choice and have campaigned for the right to choose—People Before Profit and the Green Party.
Sinn Féin have taken some time to come to their current position, and even now it can be confusing. Recently, their Belfast City Councillors were in one month able to vote in favour of decriminalisation, but the following month voted along with the DUP against an amendment which welcomed decriminalisation. Later that same evening, they brought forward their own amendment which called for the immediate re-establishment of Stormont, which would scupper the decriminalisation altogether.
The party provided clarity in yesterday’s Irish News around exactly what abortion services they would accept. Unfortunately, they do not reflect the ‘free, safe, legal and local’ mantra of the pro-choice movement.
The most worrisome aspect is the assertion that abortion should only happen in ‘limited’ circumstances. Only those who were the victim of sexual assault, such as rape or incest, those suffering from fatal foetal abnormality, or whose life or mental health is at risk would be allowed to have a termination.
This reinforces the view that there a ‘good abortions’ and ‘bad abortions’, and that the legal or healthcare system should be a moral arbitrator on which is which. It says that women cannot be trusted to choose when to have a termination, and must have been through mental or physical torment before she is allowed to have one.
A Sinn Féin spokesperson said the party “only supports terminations…within a ‘limited gestational period’,” without specifying clearly what gestational limit that is. The party supported the imposition of a 12-week limit in the South, and therefore it could be assumed that they would support that limit in the North.
We know the consequences of the 12-week limit from the experience in the South—limited access which prevents women from accessing terminations at all in some cases, or forces them to travel on journeys they may not be able to afford to make.
Limiting, restricting and criminalising abortion in such a way that abortion is effectively inaccessible, forcing women either to carry a pregnancy to term, or to make risky, costly or illegal choices has rightly been condemned by CEDAW, the UN, the Supreme Court, the High Court in Belfast, World Health Organisation and all the medical professional and regulatory bodies in the UK.
What hope was garnered from the images of Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill hoisting a (borrowed) ‘The North is Next’ banner in the air is feeling fairly diminished.
All other parties at Stormont range from the ardently anti-choice, including the DUP and the TUV, to those who allow members to vote based on their conscience and do not apply the whip on this issue. This includes the Alliance Party, the UUP and the SDLP—the latter of which maintains it is a ‘pro-life’ party.
To be blunt, therefore, it is clear that pro-choice activists cannot rely on Stormont to ensure proper access to abortion services.
Keeping Our Foot on the Pedal
There can be little doubt that Westminster would have continued to sit on its hands over the issue of abortion if it weren’t for years of activism, protest, lobbying and the seemingly indefatigable Sarah Ewart taking her very personal FFA case through the courts.
The result of that case brings some hope for the future of abortion provision—the High Court maintained that the current ban on abortion is not compatible with human rights. Therefore, it would be entirely difficult for Stormont to impose a similar regime.
Change is coming and what the outcome is, is all to be fought for. We will need our voices loud and on message on this: decriminalisation must be upheld; socioeconomic barriers to access must be torn down; services must be free on the NHS and provided locally, without the threat of anti-choice protesters; and no one should have to make the lonely trip to England again. The upcoming consultation should provide us an opportunity to convey that.
The North is Now—let’s make sure they know it.