Northern Ireland and the Fight for Reproductive Rights

It would be hard to come by a better opportunity to decriminalise abortion than the one we’ll be presented with on October 23.

The ten-minute rule bill to decriminalise abortion in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, which will be introduced by Labour MP Diana Johnson on October 23, is not the first time Westminster has had the chance to grant women of Northern Ireland the same reproductive rights as women in the rest of the UK. Currently, abortion in England, Scotland and Wales is regulated by the 1967 Abortion Act, which has never been extended to Northern Ireland.

Before now, the most recent opportunity was in 2008, when a Brown-led Labour government bureaucratically blocked a number of amendments to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill proposed by Diane Abbott and Emily Thornberry, in exchange for the DUP’s support on the successful 42 days detention vote. Sound familiar?

Now, a whole ten years later, the urgency of the situation demands a better response than we’ve seen so far from the majority of the English left. At a recent Manchester-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign meeting, Emma Campbell, of Alliance for Choice, described it as a ‘perfect storm’ - thanks to momentum from the Irish Repeal campaign and with the Tory-DUP coalition hanging on by a thread, it would be hard to come by a better opportunity to decriminalise abortion than the one we’ll be presented with on October 23.

Whilst abortion is, in comparison to the North of Ireland, incredibly easy to access in England, Scotland and Wales, it only remains legal in specific circumstances which continue to patronise and belittle women when it comes to making choices about their own body. Two doctors must sign off on the procedure before it happens, once they have assessed whether continuing the pregnancy would negatively impact the physical or mental health of the woman (as was likely explained to the doctor in the first place). Because of this, initial calls post-referendum to extend the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland were rightly nipped in the bud, because it simply isn’t good enough.

Following the lead of Scotland and Wales, the English pro-choice movement recently made a breakthrough when the government announced it would allow the second pill of medical abortions to be taken at home, rather than in a clinic. This is especially important for women who live in rural areas and poorer women, who often can’t afford taxis to and from both of the required appointments (which have to be 24 hours apart) and would risk miscarrying on public transport as a result. Less time needs to be taken off work and worries about childcare are reduced now that the pill can be taken at home.

As Home Secretary, Amber Rudd made positive steps toward addressing the abuse and harassment patients face from religious protestors when entering abortion clinics, with pressure from organisation Sister Supporter prompting a nationwide consultation on the issue. The group successfully lobbied Ealing Council to put in place the first ever buffer-zone outside the Marie Stopes clinic a year ago this month, preventing harassment for any service users and staff which had been ongoing there for a decade previous. There have been zero reports of harassment since the buffer-zone was put in place.

A Manchester branch of Sister Supporter was set up and is currently going through the same process with the council. A recent interview with clinic staff and volunteers revealed that protestors have been known to breastfeed babies directly outside the clinic as a form of intimidation, call women and staff murderers and hand out knitted baby booties to patients in December with the greeting “Happy Christmas, Mummy”.

Much in keeping with the chaotic nature of this government, by the time Rudd’s consultation had finished, she had already resigned and been replaced by Sajid Javid. Javid, however, put a halt to any hopes of a nationwide response to harassment outside abortion clinics, and declared these acts to be ‘passive’ in nature, leaving cash-strapped councils to run the lengthy, expensive process of getting buffer zones put in place themselves.

There’s something acutely embarrassing about our own government being so cowardly they won’t grant local reproductive rights to women in Northern Ireland, but they will cover the cost of the abortion if they manage to travel over here. But then after all that, they’ll turn a blind eye to the barrage of abuse received on the way in.

Despite that, travelling may seem the preferable option when you’re forced to choose between the devil and the deep blue sea, which is still a reality for women both sides of the Irish border whilst the legalities of the referendum are figured out. If by some miracle you scrape the money together to take a couple of days off work to travel to England, find somewhere to stay and pay for taxis so you don’t miscarry in public, then you might prefer that than the alternative, which is a potential life sentence.

The law which currently regulates abortion in the North of Ireland was written in 1861. It’s 157 years old and has not been afraid to dish out prosecutions which reflect that, even very recently. Theoretically, in the eyes of the law, if a woman is raped, becomes pregnant, and orders pills online to bring on an abortion, she could face more time in jail than her rapist.

In light of the bill which will be introduced to parliament on October 23, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) have launched a website full of resources to aid the campaign and help people lobby their MP in advance of the vote. The lead story is about a woman named Emma, who became pregnant and was excited at the prospect of a baby joining the family. At her routine 20 week scan, she was told the baby wouldn’t survive due to a fatal fetal abnormality. She would either have to travel to England to abort her baby or wait for it to die inside her naturally.

There are a number of horror stories rightly told over and over in an attempt to put the spotlight on the absolutely dire situation in the North; there’s the women who grassed on their flatmate when they realised she had ordered abortion pills to their house, the woman whose partner burnt her passport so she couldn’t travel to England for an abortion, the many women who suffer the same choice as Emma or the mother currently being dragged through the courts and facing up to ten years in prison for providing the abortion pill to her then 15 year old daughter. But these situations aren’t just abstract stories to accompany your political argument; they’re a daily reality for so many and will continue to be if the English left doesn’t buck its ideas up and fight for this.

Between now and October 23, there are a number of concrete things you can be doing either as an individual or as an organisation to help women in Northern Ireland:

  • Contact your MP and ask them to publicly support the bill as well as turn up and vote for it on October 23 - the more pressure from MPs in England, Scotland and Wales the more likely it is to pass. BPAS have put together a useful template for you to use here.

  • Tweet about it - use the hashtag #NowForNI and tag your MP in the tweet. Check BPAS’s website for facts and resources.

  • Donate some money to Alliance For Choice, who do great work in NI campaigning for abortion reform, and also to Abortion Support Network, who offer support and advice for women who have to travel to England for abortions.

Theresa May relies upon the myth that abortion is a devolved issue and the power to change the legislation should rest with Stormont, and is complicit in the media peddling a referendum in NI as a viable option for change. Feminists and campaigners in Northern Ireland have debunked both of these attempts at deflecting responsibility away from the hands of Westminster, and now they need all of our help in the run up to the vote.