The 1967 Abortion Act allows women to access abortion under specific circumstances provided they have the consent of two doctors. There are many issues with this outdated law; one of the most important, and surprising, being that it does not apply to women living in Northern Ireland. A recent high court challenge by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) and Amnesty International is bringing this issue to the forefront once again highlights the problems with the law.
Here are 8 reasons why it needs changing:
- The legal situation is messed up
Health and crime are both devolved issues meaning that the Northern Ireland Assembly makes decisions involving these policy matters independent of the main Westminster parliament. The law covering abortion is outlined in the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 and Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929 – two very outdated laws.
The legal situation is therefore radically different to the 1967 Act and abortions are only available if there is a probability (not just a possibility) that the life of the pregnant woman is at risk. Abortions are not available for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest or where there is a fetal abnormality. Attempts to change this law through Parliament in the late 1990s failed and so, anyone who dares to end a pregnancy on their own terms faces a prison sentence.
- Thousands of women have to travel every year
This restrictive law means that only 23 abortions were performed in Northern Ireland NHS hospitals in 2014 (according to the Department of Health) and the solution for many women is to travel to Britain or other European countries. Every year thousands – not tens, not hundreds, but thousands – of women travel to other areas of the UK to access abortions.
- Women are being subjected to considerable distress
Research by the Family Planning Association has looked into the experiences of individual women affected by this law. Some women reported feeling like they were being punished by the law for making their own heath care decisions and choices. Sarah Ewart, who gave evidence in the NIHRC case, stated that she found her situation to be a ‘living nightmare’ when she had to travel to London from Belfast for a termination despite the fetus she was carrying having fatally developed a fatal abnormality. She is now campaigning for a change in the law.
- The NHS doesn’t pay for the abortions
There are undoubtedly financial implications for the women forced to travel long distances. Despite residing in the UK, abortions are not available for these women on the NHS and the procedure can cost up to £2000 in a private hospital. The least we should be expecting the government to do is ensure that these women are not being charged for their abortions. They should be able to access the same healthcare on the NHS as other people living in the UK.
A study by Totally Money found that in Belfast the most common thing that people Google the price of is an abortion. This is powerful evidence of the financial challenges that people in Northern Ireland have to take into consideration.
- There are lots of other costs as well
The cost of flights and accommodation has to be taken into consideration as well as the fact that some women will have to arrange child care and time off from work. The reality is that the poorest and the most vulnerable in society are hit hardest by these financial obstacles. Women who are unemployed or living as undocumented migrants are amongst those who find it difficult if not impossible to make the journey to access abortion.
In an interview with the FPA one woman stated that she was forced to raise the money she needed to make the trip to England in only a few weeks in order to be within the abortion time limit. Many women have to borrow money and may end up in debt.
- Early medical abortion pills are considered a ‘poison’
It is illegal for Northern Irish women to access the same pills for early medical abortion that are available in the rest of the UK under the Abortion Act. Mifepristone and Misoprostol are available through clinics in England, Scotland, Wales as well as countless other countries around the world but are still deemed ‘poison’ in Northern Ireland according to the law. Many women resort to access abortion pills through websites and whilst there are legitimate sources such as Women on Web, there are other sites which sell dangerous counterfeit pills.
Accessing pills through these sites is illegal across the UK and in June 2015 a woman in Northern Ireland faced a criminal trial for procuring abortion pills for her daughter.
- Women’s human rights are being breached
The current legal position is an affront to the human rights of women of Northern Ireland. The high court case brought by Amnesty International and the NIHRC states that women’s right to life and right to be free from inhuman and degrading treatment are under threat. If women are unable to travel for an abortion or access abortion pills online they may find themselves desperately attempting more dangerous methods in order to cause a miscarriage as are well documented throughout history and in countries where abortion is not a legal and safe option.
- There’s lots of support from other organisations and professionals
Many medical professionals are in favour of a more liberal abortion law. An FPA survey of gynaecologists based in Northern Ireland found that 68% felt that abortion should be available when a woman has been raped and 76% thought that fetal abnormality should be grounds for legal abortion.
A number of major international organisations are in favour of a change in the law in Northern Ireland. In 2009, The United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights urged that the law in Northern Ireland should be brought into accordance with the rest of the UK. Amnesty International’s My Body My Rights campaign launched in 2014 lists Northern Ireland as one of their target countries for abortion law reform due to its treatment of women requiring abortions. In addition, The World Health Organisation continues to advocate the benefits of providing safe, comprehensive abortion care.
Abortion Rights believes that women should not have to endure the financial hardship and emotional distress of travelling long distances to access abortions. We stand in solidarity with women in Northern Ireland and campaign for abortion access that is fit for the 21st century; the ability to access reproductive healthcare regardless of a person’s background, how much money they have or where they live.