An anti-abortion demonstration in Belfast in 2012. Photo: Peter Muhly/AFP/Getty Images
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How long can Northern Ireland’s draconian abortion laws survive?

The 1967 Abortion Act was never extended to Northern Ireland, and women there still have to make the expensive and difficult journey to England to access this basic right.

In Belfast, a mother is being prosecuted for giving her daughter abortion pills to induce a miscarriage, pills which are illegal under abortion laws in Northern Ireland. As a result, over 200 women in Northern Ireland have signed an open letter from the campaign group Alliance for Choice to the Public Prosecution Service asking them to “arrest” them for using or providing illegal abortion pills. Over 200 women who are fed up with their bodily autonomy being toyed with, controlled and owned by male dominated governments.

As a recent Amnesty report put it, the laws in Northern Ireland are “draconian” and women there are being treated like “child-bearing vessels”. Fionnghuala Nic Roibeaird lives in Northern Ireland and signed the Alliance for Choice petition. When I spoke to her, she said: “Whether you want to call us vessels or incubators, that’s how we’re seen in the eyes of the state. The problem is that it’s such a controversial topic that the state don’t want to touch. Everyone knows the pills are coming in. It’s all over the internet. There are Facebook pages regularly sharing information telling women if they need an abortion, where they can get it and if they’re past the mark to go to the Abortion Support Network if they can’t afford to travel.” Access to abortion as Emma Campbell, the Vice-chair of Alliance of Choice said, is very much to do with class: “You can get an abortion if you have money, a credit card and the ability to travel. If not, you don’t really have a choice because abortions are only allowed in limited circumstances.”

Under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, abortion is classified as “felony” and is criminalised. The 1945 Criminal Justice Act allows abortion of a “child capable of being born alive” only where the mother’s life would otherwise be at risk. The 1967 Abortion Act, which is said to have legalised “abortion on demand” but in reality, merely modifies the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act allowing women to have abortion in most circumstances, was never extended to Northern Ireland. The result of these laws is that women in Northern Ireland are not allowed abortions, unless there is a direct risk to the woman’s life. Abortions are not allowed if a woman has been raped, in cases of incest or if the foetus will have fatal abnormalities. If you’re a woman who can’t fathom the thought of having a baby or you can’t afford to take care of one, you cannot have an abortion. There’s no abortion for women in abusive or violent relationships. And the list goes on.  

Campbell gets it right when she says, “Abortion has always been essential. It’s also a basic feminist principle that women should have control over their own bodies”. Reproductive rights are not something that women should still be fighting for. It is estimated that over 1,000 women from Northern Ireland travel to England every year to have an abortion and in reality the numbers are likely to be much higher. Northern Ireland is not a separate state, but due to a theocratic obsession with women’s bodies, women there face unimaginable suffering if they find themselves with an unwanted pregnancy. Never mind that Northern Irish women can’t have abortions on the NHS. As Campbell continues: “With the issue of travelling, we are also exiling and rejecting state citizens because of their reproductive needs. It can compound the emotional stigma and trauma they may already be experiencing.”

You would think that by 2015 women would have power over what happens to their bodies. You would think that by 2015 women’s reproductive needs would be met. You would think that by now women wouldn’t have to leave their home country to regain power over their bodies and to make their own decisions. And of course, there will be women who never make that lonely journey. Even in England, Wales and Scotland, where the 1967 Abortion Act seems to be working for most women, if we ignore the numerous women it has and will fail, a woman is still not allowed to decide on her own that she doesn’t want a baby. She has to convince two medical professionals that having a baby is not the right thing for her.

The sad and stark reality is, when abortion is illegal, women die. We also know that banning abortions does not mean it will not happen. It is estimated that globally, 47,00o women die from complications related to unsafe abortions each year. I wouldn’t be surprised if that figure isn’t higher. Campbell echoes this view when she says: “This has always happened. Women buy the pills and normally the government turn a blind eye, but in this situation, this hasn’t been the case.”

Nic Roibeaird strikes a chord with me when she says that the petition isn’t enough. “Something more has to be done rather than just signing a petition. We have the same abortion rates as England so abortions are happening anyway. But the situation is just unfair and unjust. They hate women, basically.” Denying women their reproductive rights has a lot to do with misogyny. However, it is also to do with an archaic belief that the only outcome of sex and insemination is pregnancy and motherhood. It is also predominantly to do with fear. Fear that women can make choices. Fear that women can decide to expel an unwanted foetus from their body. Fear that women will be liberated sexually. Fear of the unknown; what happens when we no longer have the power to tell women what they can or can’t do with their bodies?

I found it heartwarming and a brilliant act of feminist solidarity from the women of Alliance for Choice. Nic Roibeaird articulated it well when she said that “if you touch one of us, you touch all of us”. The Northern Irish government must stop sticking their noses where it doesn’t belong, in women’s uteruses. But the question we must begin to ask ourselves is this: why is it that we deem it acceptable to take a woman’s right to choose and are happier to watch women suffer and in some cases, die?

Editor's note: this article originally stated that the woman in Belfast had been convicted - this has been corrected.

June Eric-Udorie is a 17-year-old writer whose writing has appeared in Cosmopolitan and the New Statesman among others.

Photo: Getty
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The campaign to keep Britain in Europe must be based on hope, not fear

Together we can show the world a generous, outward-facing Britain we can all be proud of.

Today the Liberal Democrats launched our national campaign to keep Britain in Europe. With the polls showing the outcome of this referendum is on a knife-edge, our party is determined to play a decisive role in this once in a generation fight. This will not be an easy campaign. But it is one we will relish as the UK's most outward-looking and internationalist party. Together in Europe the UK has delivered peace, created the world’s largest free trade area and given the British people the opportunity to live, work and travel freely across the continent. Now is the time to build on these achievements, not throw them all away.

Already we are hearing fear-mongering from both sides in this heated debate. On the one hand, Ukip and the feuding Leave campaigns have shamelessly seized on the events in Cologne at New Year to claim that British women will be at risk if the UK stays in Europe. On the other, David Cameron claims that the refugees he derides as a "bunch of migrants" in Calais will all descend on the other side of the Channel the minute Britain leaves the EU. The British public deserve better than this. Rather than constant mud-slinging and politicising of the world's biggest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War, we need a frank and honest debate about what is really at stake. Most importantly this should be a positive campaign, one that is fought on hope and not on fear. As we have a seen in Scotland, a referendum won through scare tactics alone risks winning the battle but losing the war.

The voice of business and civil society, from scientists and the police to environmental charities, have a crucial role to play in explaining how being in the EU benefits the British economy and enhances people's everyday lives. All those who believe in Britain's EU membership must not be afraid to speak out and make the positive case why being in Europe makes us more prosperous, stable and secure. Because at its heart this debate is not just about facts and figures, it is about what kind of country we want to be.

The Leave campaigns cannot agree what they believe in. Some want the UK to be an offshore, deregulated tax haven, others advocate a protectionist, mean-hearted country that shuts it doors to the world. As with so many populist movements, from Putin to Trump, they are defined not by what they are for but what they are against. Their failure to come up with a credible vision for our country's future is not patriotic, it is irresponsible.

This leaves the field open to put forward a united vision of Britain's place in Europe and the world. Liberal Democrats are clear what we believe in: an open, inclusive and tolerant nation that stands tall in the world and doesn't hide from it. We are not uncritical of the EU's institutions. Indeed as Liberals, we fiercely believe that power must be devolved to the lowest possible level, empowering communities and individuals wherever possible to make decisions for themselves. But we recognise that staying in Europe is the best way to find the solutions to the problems that don't stop at borders, rather than leaving them to our children and grandchildren. We believe Britain must put itself at the heart of our continent's future and shape a more effective and more accountable Europe, focused on responding to major global challenges we face.

Together in Europe we can build a strong and prosperous future, from pioneering research into life-saving new medicines to tackling climate change and fighting international crime. Together we can provide hope for the desperate and spread the peace we now take for granted to the rest of the world. And together we can show the world a generous, outward-facing Britain we can all be proud of. So if you agree then join the Liberal Democrat campaign today, to remain in together, and to stand up for the type of Britain you think we should be.