Why You Should Care About Abortion Law in Northern Ireland

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Aged 18, I sat hyperventilating alone on the filthy floor of a public bathroom, my period 10 days late and a pregnancy test clutched in my bloodless fist. This was despite having used protection with a boy (who turned out to be a very poor choice). It took me longer than it should have to realise this, but my country doesn’t forgive women – however young – for such errors. Too frightened to take the test, I told myself that the familiar low, dull grind in my abdomen and lower back would eventually stab its way into my awareness.

I wasn’t pregnant. I awoke the next morning as so many frightened Irish women and girls have – grateful to be bleeding. It was just a late period. In Ireland, depending on your circumstances, a late period can be the only thing that saves you from forced pregnancy, because there are few instances in which abortion is legally available. Anyone carrying out an illegal abortion in Northern Ireland can theoretically be jailed for life. In the Republic, the potential jail time is up to 14 years.

You might not be sympathetic. In Ireland at least, some people are not. The Eighth Amendment to the Irish Constitution places equal value on a zygote with the potentiality to actualised life, and a girl or woman who is an actualized, independent life. Our public discourse on abortion is fraught. Legal abortion is almost impossible to procure in the Republic (there have been cases of women meeting the criteria and still being denied), and arguably even harder to obtain in Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK but operates under separate abortion laws. The 1967 Abortion Act, which allows women to access legal abortion within the UK, was never applied in Northern Ireland. Rather, abortion is available there under the incredibly narrow conditions set down by the 1929 Infant Life (Preservation) Act, extended to Northern Ireland in 1945.

London-Irish Abortion Rights campaigners protest against Prime Minister Theresa May’s new government and a coalition with the DUP in Parliament Square, June 2017

Rex

Earlier this year, the UK government agreed to fund abortions in England on the NHS for Northern Irish women. Until this decision was taken, Northern Irish women were considered exempt from the rights freely given to women in the rest of the UK. A surgical abortion before 14 weeks’ gestation, plus travel costs, amounts to around £900 minimum for women from the Republic, who have to pay full treatment costs. However, despite living in the UK, Northern Irish women will still have to incur the cost of travelling to England in order to avail themselves of NHS abortion services there. They are still not being treated equally to Scottish, English, or Welsh women.

Currently in both Northern Ireland and the Republic, you will not be granted the right to an abortion if you have been raped, in the case of incest, or in the instance of a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality. For wealthier women, lack of access to abortion in their own country when they need it is an abomination, an infringement of their rights, a cause of deep and meaningful distress and unnecessarily expense. For poorer women, it is often a life sentence: parenting a child they cannot afford mentally, physically, financially or otherwise to have. It means, and has meant, carrying foetuses with fatal abnormalities to term only to have a stillbirth or watch a baby suffer and die shortly after. In the Republic of Ireland, it has meant suicidal pregnant women and teenagers being sectioned – essentially, forced pregnancy – and in several cases, both infamous and forgotten, death.

Last year 3,000 women from the Republic of Ireland travelled to the UK for abortions. A further 724 were Northern Irish, according to UK Department of Health figures. Irish women are almost wholly dependent on mainland UK clinics to provide this form of healthcare. Some provide discounts, like Marie Stopes, but the cost can still be a terrible struggle. Several women have told me they have forgone anaesthetic during the procedure because they don’t have the money to stay somewhere overnight, coming home the same day in pain and bleeding, in defiance of medical advice.

After decades of campaigning, a referendum is to be held in the Republic of Ireland next year over the abortion ban – but there is little sign of imminent hope for Northern Ireland. Despite the UK government’s recent concession, the situation is compounded by the Democratic Unionist party deal propping up Theresa May’s Conservative government. Promises that there will be no abortion reform are not included in the deal, but the DUP can now boast an unprecedented level of influence. Non-NI British people have been furiously googling the party, and many have been shocked to discover Northern Ireland’s abortion situation. An extremely conservative party which can claim several creationists among its membership, the DUP is virulently against reform.

Labour MP for Walthamstow Stella Creasy was influential in bringing about the UK government’s amendment on Northern-Irish women accessing NHS-funded abortions, but the fact remains that those same women will still have to fund their own passage as termination remains illegal in Northern Ireland

In a place where religious and sectarian loyalties almost always push issues into the background and without strong political willingness to address this issue, pressure for change must be external. More than one ongoing court case attests to an appetite for reform, but further pressure from mainland Britain and International women’s groups would help attain basic human rights of Northern Irish women.

If I had discovered I was pregnant on that bathroom floor that day, I would have lost the right to determine the course of my own life. Though my government doesn’t yet recognise it, my body is mine alone. I am the only person who should set the standard for its treatment. If I were English, Welsh or Scottish, I would have that right already. Irish women have quite literally paid the price for their bodily autonomy in blood. Enough.



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