Stuck in the Dark Ages: Abortion Rights in Northern Ireland

In April of 2016, a Northern Irish court handed down a three-month suspended sentence to a 21-year-old girl for ingesting mifepristone and misoprostol, two drugs she used to induce a miscarriage. It was heard in court that the woman – a teenager at the time of the offence – could not afford to travel to England to have the procedure performed. Readers from other parts of the United Kingdom, or indeed from many other Western countries, may be surprised that having an abortion in Northern Ireland is a criminal offence. For Northern Irish women, this is the norm.

Legal abortion was established for England, Wales, and Scotland in 1967. This right was not extended to Northern Ireland because, at the time, it was not under the direct rule of Westminster and there was little appetite in the Northern Irish Assembly to introduce its own abortion legislation. Instead, abortion is still criminalised by the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, except when the pregnancy threatens the life of the woman or is likely to have long term effects on her mental or physical health. Having or assisting a woman in an abortion carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.

Trade Unions Anti-Austerity and pro-choice march, Belfast, Northern Ireland, October 2012

The practical implications of this law are three-fold. First, even in cases of rape, incest, or a fatal foetal abnormality, a woman is required to carry her pregnancy to full term. Sarah Ewart, a Belfast woman, found out during a 20 week scan that her baby had anencephaly (a condition where the baby’s skull and brain has not developed properly), and would not survive for long after birth. After this devastating diagnosis, she was then told by medical practitioners that she must continue with the pregnancy. Likewise, even when going to get advice on the issue of abortion, or issues surrounding their sexual health in general, women can face a barrage of pro-life protesters outside family planning clinics.

Secondly, should a woman choose to have an abortion, she must travel outside of Northern Ireland to have the procedure. The cost of travel, and the fact that Northern Irish women are not entitled to free NHS abortions when they go to other parts of the UK, means that the process can cost around £350 to £2,000 (£2,100 in the case of Sarah Ewart). This creates a clear class divide between those who can afford the journey and those who cannot. It has led one woman to bring a case to the UK Supreme Court to challenge the exorbitant costs Northern Irish women face, claiming that they have been “made second class citizens in abortion.” Despite the financial barriers, almost 5,000 women from Northern Ireland undertook the journey between 2010 and 2014, with around 833 making the journey in 2015.

In the neighbouring Republic of Ireland, similarly Draconian laws exist due to a constitutional ban on abortion under the 8th Amendment. Approximately 19,000 women from the Republic made the journey across the Irish sea to the UK for an abortion between 2010 and 2014. The fact that so many women are willing to subject themselves to this ordeal, despite the financial and emotional costs, speaks volumes to the desperate situation they are in, simply because they reside in Northern Ireland or the Republic.

Finally, the 1861 law, and the subsequent bewildering guidelines issued by the Northern Irish Department of Health, have left medical practitioners in disarray over how they should treat and advise women in these circumstances. Hospital staff are still legally required to report when they believe a woman has had an abortion, in case they themselves are held criminally liable. In fact, another woman, prosecuted for procuring the abortion pills for her daughter in 2015, was reported to the police by her own GP. These factors combine to create an environment of fear and desperation for women in Northern Ireland, and has led to women taking matters into their own hands.

Like most issues in Northern Ireland, the abortion debate is fraught with religious overtones. The sectarian divide in the government has meant that progress on this traditionally taboo subject has been glacial, and often actively discouraged. Despite a High Court ruling stating that the law preventing abortion in the cases of rape, incest, or fatal foetal abnormality violates women’s human rights under Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), no legislative progress has been made on the issue.

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the majority party in Northern Ireland, remains vehemently opposed to changing the law, even in extraordinary circumstances, and it was only in 2015 that Sinn Fein (the second biggest party, who operate the Northern Ireland Executive in tandem with the DUP), officially changed its stance on abortion rights to a limited option of abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality. During a debate in the Northern Irish Assembly on abortion, the leader of the Traditional Unionist Voice party said that any amendment to the 1861 Act was a “charter for abortion,” and that all women would just claim that they had been raped in order to get the procedure.

There is some hope on the horizon for Northern Irish women. The governance gap created by the Assembly’s ineptitude has provided an opportunity for grassroots movements, NGOs, and a few small progressive political parties to actively campaign for women’s rights. Organisations such as Alliance for Choice and the Abortion Support Network provide a platform for women’s voices, campaign for an extension of the 1967 Act to Northern Ireland, and offer advice and support for those in need. Amnesty International used their global “My Body My Rights” campaign to challenge Northern Ireland’s restrictive laws, and medical organisations like British Pregnancy Advisory Services have focused their efforts on asking the government to provide clearer guidelines for medical professionals, in order to fully support women’s access to a safe abortion.

Smaller political parties like the Alliance Party and the Green Party, who do not conform to the sectarian divide in Northern Irish politics, have also shown their support for abortion law reform. Both have advocated for an extension of the 1967 Act to Northern Ireland, and the Green Party has advocated for a complete decriminalisation of abortion. Unlike the more religious political parties in Northern Ireland, these parties seem to be listening to the majority of the electorate, wherein 72% of voters support abortion law reform, at least in the cases of rape and incest. On 2nd March 2017, the progressive parties were rewarded with an increased share of votes at the Assembly elections. The significantly weakened DUP will now have trouble blocking any discussion of changes to the law on abortion, or persuading other parties to vote against any subsequent reform.

The growing support for decriminalisation has already had some impact. A cross-party Assembly working group was set up in 2016 to consider the case of fatal foetal abnormality. There has also been a debate and a vote on the same issue in the Assembly, and although it was defeated, this is, at least, a sign of the subject becoming less taboo. For women living in Northern Ireland, however, the year is still 1861.

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