It’s been hard to escape news about the impact that the EU referendum result has already had on the UK political scene. After less than a month David Cameron has had to step down as Prime Minister, with Theresa May as the new leader of the Conservative Party taking his place and also replacing the majority of the existing cabinet. Labour are also experiencing a potential reshuffle after Jeremy Corbyn received a vote of no confidence and although Angela Eagle was quick to put herself forward as a candidate, it seems Owen Jones will be vying to be the next Labour leader. Brexit has clearly had a real impact in the make-up of the political parties but what does it mean for the ret of us, as citizens of the UK? And what does it mean for women and their rights?
So let’s recap what the current law in the UK on abortion is – it’s been nearly fifty years since the Abortion Act of 1967 legalised abortions (keep an eye out for our birthday celebrations next year!) but was only introduced as a response to the Offences Against the Person Act of 1861 which states that abortion is in fact illegal. In England, Wales and Scotland the Abortion Act is a success in that it allows women to access abortion under the NHS but when it comes to Northern Ireland, the Abortion Act does not apply so many women are left with the prospect of either having an illegal abortion in their own country or travelling to the UK for the procedure. So already these Irish women face a number of obstacles in receiving treatment that are entitled to as UK citizens, making an already difficult time even harder. But what now?
Although we can’t know for sure what is going to happen to the ‘United’ part of our country as a result of Brexit, there is the possibility of the UK dissolving into separate countries making freedom of movement far more difficult. As Ireland is an island nation it is already a trickier journey with most women having to fly out, have their appointment, and fly back all in one day. Even if the UK doesn’t split apart, Brexit may potentially make it harder to travel to mainland Britain and not only harder, but more expensive. This will affect all women who need to travel for their abortion, but mostly those from a lower-income background – it’s hard to see how this is fair considering part of the purpose of paying taxes is access to free healthcare under the NHS. How can it be justified that an entire nation of UK tax-paying citizens is exempt from this perk? The official statistic of Irish women receiving abortions in England and Wales in 2015 is 3451 but that number only reflects the women who are upfront about their abortion or their home address – it’s likely there are many more that fall prey to the power of the stigma and feel they cannot speak about their abortion. That means that in years to come, thousands of women will potentially be prevented from exercising their right to access the health treatment we are all entitled to. Once again, women are the unfortunate victims of circumstances beyond their control and it is a frightening thought that the obstacles Irish women already face may only increase, resulting in more dangerous methods to access abortion.