We have witnessed the beginning of the end of the abortion ban in Northern Ireland. This ban has seen thousands of women make the often lonely journey to Britain to access health care widely available to women in the rest of the UK.
Those who couldn’t travel, perhaps they couldn’t afford the journey or had health problems, were forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy, or in some cases a much wanted but unviable one. The alternative was to risk a life sentence by buying pills online. Yes, a life sentence is still what’s on the books for a doctor or a woman who carries out an “illegal” abortion in Northern Ireland, something the anti-abortion lobby in Alabama hasn’t countenanced. No wonder even a Judge in the high court, Justice Horner, was driven to state in 2015 that the law in abortion in Northern Ireland was in breach of human rights law and “smacks of one law for the rich and one law for the poor.”
The watershed moment that has transformed the situation took place with little fanfare this week in Westminster when MPs voted to change the law on abortion and equal marriage in Northern Ireland if the Stormont Assembly is not back in place by 21 October. The size of the vote for change in abortion legislation, 332 to 99, is decisive. Finally, politicians and the numbers show that this is across the house, have had to accept that they can no longer collaborate with archaic and cruel laws on abortion that are some of the most restrictive in the world.
The bigots of the DUP have derailed progressive change on women’s and LGBT rights at every opportunity, and they are up in arms about this vote. But this is not just about the DUP, they couldn’t have held out for so long without their Tory enablers. Although, and this is a beautiful irony, the grubby deal Theresa May made with the DUP to hold onto power when she lost her majority in 2017 has ultimately helped unravel the DUP’s ability to block change.
The deal was so unsavory that Labour MP Stella Creasy was able to win a majority in the House of Commons to force the May to concede funding for abortions for women from Northern Ireland. May feared her Queen’s Speech wouldn’t pass, she hadn’t suddenly felt remorse for the plight of women being denied their rights in the North who then had to pay once they came in Britain to access them. The government had only two weeks previously fought and won a case in the Supreme Court to deny Northern Ireland women the right to funding for abortions in Britain. It wanted to maintain the status quo, where the 1861 Offences against the Person Act ruled over the reproductive rights of women in Northern Ireland, without any of the provisions that the 1967 Abortion Act had brought to England, Scotland and Wales.
Not only was abortion so tightly controlled it was effectively banned, doctors in Northern Ireland were required to break confidentiality and report women they suspected had carried out an abortion on themselves. DUP MP Emma Little Pengelly stated during the parliamentary debate that “no woman has been sent to prison” for a crime associated with abortion, as if that was great indulgence. But suspended prison sentences have been imposed, imprisonment is still an option and the law has been used to prosecute women on many occasions.
The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) reported in 2018 that:
“Since 2000, the NI Police Service (PSNI) has investigated over 30 cases of individuals suspected of procuring an abortion. Between 2006 and 2015, the PSNI made 11 arrests related to illegal abortion. Between 2011 and 2016, five people were questioned and arrested for possession of abortifacients; two were convicted.”
A mother is to appear in court in November for getting pills online for her 15-year-old daughter who had been in an abusive relationship and told a therapist that she had taken the pills. Some health professionals advocated a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy when a woman presented with a suspected miscarriage. They didn’t ask if the patient had taken pills so they wouldn’t be in a position to be legally obligated to report her.
It is the CEDAW report’s findings that formed the basis for the policy won in Westminster this week in the amendment put by Stella Creasy. The Committee recommended that the Government repeal sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, which are the sections that make abortion a criminal offence. This move immediately opens up wider and positive implications for England and Wales where, unbeknownst to many, the 1861 act is still the law on abortion, only with exceptions laid out in the 1967 Abortion Act.
Abortion Rights has long called for decriminalisation of abortion in Britain, and for it to be governed by ordinary medical oversight like any other medical procedure. This position has the official support of the British Medical Association; the Royal College of Midwives; the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists; and the Royal College of Nursing. It now is something that is fast becoming a real possibility and not just an aspiration.
Regardless what the DUP dinosaurs in parliament claim, these moves have the support of the majority in Northern Ireland. Amnesty polls show that 66 percent of Northern Irish adults said that that without their own government Westminster should act to change the law; and even 67 percent of DUP voters questioned agreed that having an abortion should not be a crime.
Technically there is the potential that a reconvened Northern Ireland Assembly could overturn changed legislation, but they would face a roar of resistance. Rights have been won and they will not easily be stolen back. These newly won freedoms can’t be just put back in a box.
There will of course be battles over the shape of legislation, over provision, access and medical oversight. But these are all winnable now that the main and fundamental principle has at last been recognised—that to deny women the right to control her body is unacceptable in the 21st century.
This week’s victory didn’t see thousands gather to celebrate the achievement of winning abortion rights through a mass popular vote as we saw in the Republic of Ireland in May 2018. Though it was poignant that even at that glorious moment of celebration at Dublin Castle, activists help up placards saying “The North is next”— thinking of others even as they celebrated.
But make no mistake, the vote in parliament this week would not have happened without the long struggle of many thousands of activists campaigning over decades, of marching and protesting and lobbying, of holding meetings in a sometimes hostile environment when abortion rights weren’t seen as being in tide with the time. Tribute must be paid to the wonderful campaigners of Alliance for Choice who fought in Northern Ireland and to the amazing Abortion Support Network who support some of the most vulnerable women when they have to travel to Britain.
Many pro-choice activists in Britain have long fought for the right of women in Northern Ireland, and it is fitting that this victory for women across the Irish Sea might end up helping wedge open the door to decriminalisation of abortion across Britain. When it comes to battles for change, a victory for one is always a victory for all.
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