Women’s rights have come a long way since the 1960s. But there is one part of the UK where women are still waiting for the gains of 40 years ago–the north of Ireland.
The 1967 Abortion Act was never extended to Northern Ireland and so abortion remains illegal there except in the most extreme circumstances.
Please visit the fpa website to email your MP with a short film message from women in NI who have needed to access abortion services.
Please sign the 10 Downing Street petition in support of rights in NI.
Please visit the website of Alliance for Choice the grass roots pro-choice campaign in the North of Ireland to show your support for their campaign
Tens of thousands of women have travelled to England since 1967 to access abortions. They are not allowed to use NHS services so are forced to go to private clinics.
This means that women may end up having a later abortion because of time taken to arrange a journey and raise money–the cost can amount to between £600 to £2,000. Women from Northern Ireland are three times more likely than British women to have abortions after 20 weeks.
Women who cannot afford an abortion in England, or who have not got a passport or driving licence–essential to travel–are faced with the prospect of continuing with an unwanted pregnancy even when it as a result of rape and sexual abuse.
GPs are explicitly prohibited from referring women for NHS abortions in Britain and as many as 11 percent of Northern Irish GP’s told a Middlesex University survey that they had seen the results of amateur abortions. Some women have been going on the internet and getting the abortion pill which causes an abortion up to nine weeks of pregnancy. If something goes wrong and they are caught by the authorities, they face life imprisonment. While obtaining the abortion pill from the ‘women on web’ site is relatively safe and includes an email consultation with a doctor, other websites have been shown to be selling fake tablets that could put the woman’s health and life in danger.
The NI Assembly voted in autumn 2007 to reject guidelines allowing abortion when a woman’s mental or physical health is in ‘grave’ danger of ‘serious and permanent damage’ as being too liberal. Yet new opinion poll by fpa in Northern Ireland shows that 62% would support abortion in cases of rape and incest.
The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) has repeatedly criticised the British government for not providing abortion rights for women in NI. As recently as July 2008, this committee again called on the British government to work towards a clear abortion law for NI and to “remove punitive provisions imposed on women who undergo abortions”.
On 22nd October in parliament there is a once in a generation chance for women in Northern Ireland to finally win the right to control their own bodies. Labour MP Diane Abbott has tabled New Clause 30–an amendment to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill that proposes extending the act to Northern Ireland.
Diane Abbott said, “The issue here is, should there be a group of women in the United Kingdom who are essentially second-class citizens?”
Politicians opposing the move have argued that people in Northern Ireland don’t want abortion rights and to change the law would be imposing abortion on the population.
A delegation of women from a broad range of backgrounds came to a packed Abortion Rights meeting in the House of Commons on Tuesday 7th October to challenge this view and show that the amendment to extend abortion rights has wide support. On Wednesday 8th October they handed in a letter to Downing Street signed by a broad cross section of NI civil society including leading trade unionists, women’s organisations, academics, lawyers, students and MLAs.
As Audrey Simpson, Director fpa Northern Ireland pointed out at the Abortion Rights meeting:
‘Since the 1967 Act made abortion legal in England, Scotland and Wales as many as 80,000 women from Northern Ireland have travelled to England and other European cities to have a private abortion. They are not entitled to an NHS abortion in Britain. Given that many of these 80,000 women have the support of friends and families and the fact that the population of Northern Ireland is only 1.7 million it is evident that a significant number of people in Northern Ireland have been silently voting with their feet with regards to the need for abortion in Northern Ireland.’
Annie Campbell, Alliance for Choice, a grassroots organisation in NI, said: “Abortion is a basic human right, we have a broad movement that spans the students NUS and USI, all of the women’s sector including Women’s Aid, all of the trade unions and a great deal of civil society. If you’re in favour of human rights, get this amendment through for us. The churches and politicians who are saying no abortion, are not the young women who need help.”
Mary O’Hara wrote an excellent article in the Guardian on Friday 17th October outlining the issues for women