Abortion access in Northern Ireland is a human right, not a bargaining chip

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Westminster is in a unique position to pressure Northern Ireland (NI) into changing their strict abortion laws and it needs to do what governments are theoretically elected to do: put human rights above saving face. The recent majority vote in favour of extending abortion rights to NI will only come into play if NI is unable to form a new devolved government within three months. If Stormont — the seat of the Northern Ireland assembly — is restored within this timeframe, they can halt and reverse this process.

As a devolved assembly — an institution that gives separate decision making powers to its representatives for voters — NI is able to make most of its own laws, including abortion laws. But both the EU and Westminster effectively outrank any devolved UK government, which means Westminster can step in and enforce on the issue of abortion. Abortion rights should fall under human rights law, and a devolved assembly should not be able to opt out of human rights law.

“It’s ironic that at a time when the UK is prioritising and modifying their domestic abuse laws to include all forms of violence, the lack of abortion access for women in NI is not being looked at as an immediate priority, too,” says campaign manager for Amnesty NI and pro-choice campaigner, Grainne Teggart. “These women are being left behind.”

Women who “fall through the cracks”

Being able to access abortion care in the rest of the UK “for free” is a “welcomed form of remedy” but this allows those with the power to set change in motion — both in NI and Westminster — to drag their feet, almost as if it’s not that bad, because at least Northern Irish women can “just travel” if they need to access abortion, which is reductive and downplays the real impact of NI’s abortion laws.

Since 1967, women from NI have been allowed to travel to the rest of the UK for abortions without the risk of prosecution once they return. While this has been a helpful system to have in place, it’s by no means a solution, excluding those from lower-income backgrounds or who are unable to travel due to work and childcare commitments from legal and safe abortion care elsewhere in the UK. Having to travel while in pain and bleeding heavily is an additional burden during an already difficult, and often traumatic, time.

On the ground, societal attitudes are hostile to abortions and to the women that seek them. Without real pressure from an authority like Westminster, they are likely to continue unchecked.

Mara Clarke founded the Abortion Access Network to help women in NI access safe abortions, providing a lifeline for those who “fall through the cracks”.

“In NI, there is still absolutely no place you can go for unbiased, helpful advice on family planning if you are in need of an abortion,” she says.

“They told me that if I had an abortion I would get breast cancer, or be infertile”

Mara mentions the term “rogue crisis pregnancy centres” — a sinister and prolific practice within NI of health clinics masquerading as help centres for those wanting to access abortions. Once women arrive, they are shamed, guilt-tripped, and scared into reconsidering their abortion.

“These clinics actually exist in England too, not just in NI and ROI,” says Mara. “We have had women come to us and say ‘I went to this place for help, I thought they were a family planning agency. They told me that if I had an abortion I would get breast cancer, or be infertile’.

The difference is that in England and ROI, women have the option of a safe and legal alternative to these clinics, and this right in enshrined in law.

“My personal favourite — and by favourite I mean, are you kidding me? — a sixteen-year-old girl was asked, ‘If you had a dog, would you shoot it? Because that’s what you’re doing if you have an abortion’,” Mara adds.

These ominous manipulation tactics are still used even when unwanted pregnancies are the result of sexual assault.

“Three women who have come to us were told that they would be a worse person than the man who assaulted them if they underwent abortions,” says Mara. “Because ‘he was only a rapist, but you’d be a murderer’.”

The Offences Against the Person Act 1861 and the 1945 Criminal Justice Act (NI) establishes a fetus as a person with human rights from the moment of conception. This means that abortion carries the same maximum sentence as murder in NI — life imprisonment. While this maximum term has rarely been applied in reality, women have and continue to be prosecuted and sentenced to prison for having or aiding someone else in abortion.

This can only be changed through a change in law and Westminster is in a unique position to apply the kind of pressure that could make it happen, and follow through with it.

NI’s current stance on abortion is archaic

A mother is currently being prosecuted for accessing abortion pills illegally online for her 15-year-old daughter who was in an abusive relationship.

Grainne says that it’s “no exaggeration when the situation in NI is described as ‘really quite grave’”. She points out that NI’s abortion laws are some of the most restrictive in not just Europe, but the world.

“The penalties for having an abortion in NI are a reality, not just theoretical,” says Grainne. “In the case of this mother, her daughter is being used as a tool in her own prosecution. Wanting access to safe and legal abortion here in NI isn’t radical — we are simply asking to have the same basic reproductive healthcare rights as the rest of the UK.

“It’s hard enough for some women in abusive relationships to even get to the grocery store. Let alone, you know, England”

“It’s hard enough for some women in abusive relationships to even get to the grocery store,” says Mara. “Let alone, you know, England.

“There was a week where we had three women come to us because their abusive partners had stolen and hidden their identification documents because they didn’t want them to get abortions.

“I was told by a woman that she was trying to figure out how to crash her car to induce a miscarriage but not injure herself permanently.”

Mara also reveals that she has worked with minors from NI who were in foster care, and “incorrectly told that because they were wards of the state, and because abortion was against the law in NI, that they had to continue with their pregnancies,” and weren’t allowed to even consider the option of travelling for abortion access.

“Those in care will also have those babies taken away from them as soon as they are born,” says Mara.

Parliament must do more than virtue signal

Westminster has not acted soon enough or fast enough, proving that women’s rights in NI are simply not that important to them. Theresa May’s last minute coalition with the DUP IN 2017 — a NI political party that have consistently and proudly blocked abortion access — was particularly insulting, suggesting that a last minute grapple for power was more important than what their alliance meant for opening up abortion access in NI. But Theresa May abstaining from the vote to lift NI’s abortion ban was really the cherry on top of her legacy. Our new Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, also did not vote.

NI’s devolved government collapsed in 2017, after ongoing disagreements between the two leading political parties who shared power, Sinn Féin and the DUP. Today, NI has been without a sitting government for longer than any other country in history.

This motion to liberalise abortion in NI seems like a calculated and token move by Westminster: abortion rights are human rights, not bargaining chips

Since the pivotal Westminster vote in favour of extending abortion rights to NI, the “three month” deadline by which NI has to form a devolved government — giving them the power to overturn this ruling — has already been extended until January 2020, which gives government officials in NI ample time to form a coalition, despite the tensions between Sinn Féin and the DUP. Activists have criticised Westminster for not picking up the pace, and for being lax with the time restrictions they have imposed.

Their concerns are valid. This motion to liberalise abortion in NI seems like a calculated and token move by Westminster: abortion rights are human rights, not bargaining chips. Especially when used to scare a party like the DUP into forging a devolved coalition government.

Women in NI have suffered immensely while Westminster have plodded along sluggishly and refused to truly face the issue. I welcome the motion to make abortion rights a possibility in NI, but I’m worried that Westminster is simply virtue signalling to push an agenda. We’ve seen Stormont overturn rulings that were overwhelmingly in favour of abortion rights before, and I fear they’ll do it again.

If you are in need of abortion services in NI, please visit asn.org.uk or alliance4choice.com for support

The header image features a sign from an abortion rights protest reading “fuck your abortion ban”, depicting anger and frustration at the blatant and prolonged lack of bodily autonomy women in NI have been subject to

Page last updated July 2019

Rachel Mantock

A feature writer who started out in lifestyle and wellness, Rachel joined The Femedic after becoming frustrated with the way women’s bodies and intimate health were being reported on. She wanted to talk about the good, the bad, the ‘ugly’ and the ‘really ugly’, with no topic too taboo to investigate. From conversations with the women she meets everyday to speaking with doctors, she’s constantly surprised by the amount of misinformation and lack of research around women’s health issues. She’s determined to raise awareness of the female health issues that are prominent in minority groups and to get more women talking shamelessly about their bodies and experiences.

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