The recent ruling in Belfast may at first seem like a huge step for abortion rights campaigners, but it does little to provide choice to a huge majority of women in Northern Ireland seeking to end their pregnancies.
The judgement passed on 30 Nov last year allows women with pregnancies resulting from sexual crimes, or women who are pregnant with fatal foetal abnormalities to avail of an abortion at their local hospital. While these women will not have to travel for their abortions, Northern Ireland continues to export its human right responsibilities towards the rest.
As many as 1000 women travel each year from Northern Ireland to England. The number of women who choose to undergo unsafe procedures is unrecorded. Recently, a 21-year-old woman from CoDown was charged with the 1861 Offense Against the Person Act for choosing to consume abortion pills. She could not afford to travel to England for the same procedure that she carried out at home. She now faces life imprisonment. The Act places the ‘offense’ of abortion alongside crimes like child-stealing, manslaughter and producing gunpowder.
The current situation thus allows women with money to travel to England for safe procedure. On the other hand, women with limited resources must either take their unwanted pregnancy to term, or attempt a self-induced abortion, which is illegal and could land them in jail. Those in power in Northern Ireland continue to fail a huge number of women.
What we need is an ‘Abortion Revolution’. The Belfast ruling should be used as a jumping board. Continued activism, pressure on political parties and an organized effort to dissociate stigma around abortion could be a route to bringing a real legal reform. Safe abortion is a human right and no woman should have to fear accessing it, or be ashamed.