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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Jeremy Corbyn challenged by Labour MPs to sack Ken Livingstone from defence review

Former mayor of London criticised at PLP meeting over comments on 7 July bombings. 

After Jeremy Corbyn's decision to give Labour MPs a free vote over air strikes in Syria, tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) meeting was less fractious than it could have been. But one grandee was still moved to declare that the "ferocity" of the attacks on the leader made it the most "uplifting" he had attended.

Margaret Beckett, the former foreign secretary, told the meeting: "We cannot unite the party if the leader's office is determined to divide us." Several MPs said afterwards that many of those who shared Corbyn's opposition to air strikes believed he had mishandled the process by appealing to MPs over the heads of the shadow cabinet and then to members. David Winnick declared that those who favoured military action faced a "shakedown" and deselection by Momentum activists. "It is completely unacceptable. They are a party within a party," he said of the Corbyn-aligned group. The "huge applause" for Hilary Benn, who favours intervention, far outweighed that for the leader, I'm told. 

There was also loud agreement when Jack Dromey condemned Ken Livingstone for blaming Tony Blair's invasion of Iraq for the 7 July 2005 bombings. Along with Angela Smith MP, Dromey demanded that Livingstone be sacked as the co-chair of Labour's defence review. Significantly, Benn said aftewards that he agreed with every word Dromey had said. Corbyn's office has previously said that it is up to the NEC, not the leader, whether the former London mayor holds the position. In reference to 7 July, an aide repeated Corbyn's statement that he preferred to "remember the brilliant words Ken used after 7/7". 

As on previous occasions, MPs complained that the leader failed to answer the questions that were put to him. A shadow minister told me that he "dodged" one on whether he believed the UK should end air strikes against Isis in Iraq. In reference to Syria, a Corbyn aide said afterwards that "There was significant support for the leader. There was a wide debate, with people speaking on both sides of the arguments." After David Cameron's decision to call a vote on air strikes for Wednesday, leaving only a day for debate, the number of Labour MPs backing intervention is likely to fall. One shadow minister told me that as few as 40-50 may back the government, though most expect the total to be closer to the original figure of 99. 

At the end of another remarkable day in Labour's history, a Corbyn aide concluded: "It was always going to be a bumpy ride when you have a leader who was elected by a large number outside parliament but whose support in the PLP is quite limited. There are a small number who find it hard to come to terms with that result."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.