An anti-abortion protestor in Belfast in 2012. Photo: Peter Muhly/AFP/Getty
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It’s time Northern Ireland put an end to the climate of fear around abortion

The proposal to impose ten-year jail sentences on any woman who has an abortion in a non-NHS clinic in Northern Ireland would plunge women’s rights into the dark ages.

How long should the jail sentence be for someone who has had an abortion? Up to three years, like in Mexico? Seven years (Uganda)? Ten years (Sri Lanka)? Or how about 45 years, like in El Salvador?

Obviously the right answer is zero, but now if Northern Ireland’s health minister Jim Wells has his way, the UK will be joining this rotters’ club of those who lock women up for making decisions about their own bodies by imposing ten-year jail sentences on any woman who has an abortion in a non-NHS clinic in Northern Ireland – effectively banning providers like Marie Stopes International. And not just the woman, but on the health worker who carries out the abortion too.

It’s wrong on many levels, and not least because Northern Ireland already has very restrictive rules around abortion. Unlike in the rest of the UK, abortion in Northern Ireland is not permitted even in the case of rape, incest and if the foetus has an anomaly that means it won’t survive outside the womb. The law does say that women can access abortion in cases where there’s a long term risk to her physical or mental health. However, an ongoing failure of the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) in Northern Ireland to publish guidance clarifying the law has reinforced a climate of fear around providing even abortions which are lawful.

But where the law in Northern Ireland is vague, international law is clear. Access to safe abortion is a human right and where it is available it must be accessible. It’s not enough merely to have something written down on paper, it has to be available in practice too and governments must actively seek to remove barriers, rather than build them. Criminal penalties, as proposed by Jim Wells, are recognised by the UN and by the European Court of Human Rights to impede women’s access to lawful abortion and post-abortion care.

Amnesty research on access to abortion has also shown that a climate of fear can hinder the provision of care with serious health consequences for women. Where abortion is subject to criminal law, like it is in Northern Ireland, health care providers are often compelled to make decisions about whether they will carry out an abortion with a view to avoiding potential prosecution, rather than a view to providing quality care.

The result of all this is that women and girls who want or need an abortion are forced either to continue with an unwanted pregnancy, or to travel to England to have the procedure carried out here privately as Northern Irish women are not even allowed to access abortions in England on the NHS.

That’s girls like Julie (not her real name) who was left pregnant as the result of rape. She had recently been made redundant, and despite selling her car, was still short of the cost of travel to England and paying privately. So desperate was she for the funds for the procedure that she even considered contacting her rapist to ask for money towards her costs.

But things could change. The Northern Ireland Assembly is currently consulting on potential reforms to allow abortion in the cases of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormality. A recent survey by Amnesty of adults in Northern Ireland found overwhelming support for these changes, with seven in ten supporting access to abortion in the case of rape and incest. Sixty per cent said it should be allowed in the case of fatal foetal abnormality.

The consultation is Northern Ireland’s opportunity to decide which club it wants to be in – the one engaged in a daily and sustained attack on women’s rights by criminalising and restricting access to abortion even in the most extreme circumstances, or the one that respects a woman’s right to make a decision about her own body. It should use the opportunity to bring its abortion laws into the twenty-first century, and into line with international law, rather than to introduce further restrictions that plunge women’s rights into the dark ages.

Grainne Teggart is the Northern Ireland campaigner for Amnesty International

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.