An anti-abortion protest in Belfast. The High Court in London has ruled that Northern Irish women are not entitled to free NHS abortions in England. Photo: Getty
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Northern Irish women denied NHS abortions are the scapegoats of men's colonial wranglings

The 1967 Abortion Act cannot be imposed on Northern Ireland by Westminster, but nor should penalising charges be imposed on Northern Irish women by the English NHS. 

There is no national health service for Northern Irish women. There is not, strictly, an NHS for Northern Ireland – instead, the region is covered by the body Health and Social Care, which provides social services as well as healthcare. But like the NHS in England, Scotland and Wales, the HSC was founded within the scope of the Beveridge report to provide medical treatment free at the point of use. Which it does, unless you are a woman who has use for an abortion, because the 1967 Abortion Act was never extended to Northern Ireland.

For Northern Irish women, terminations are only available in "highly exceptional circumstances". These "highly exceptional circumstances" are undefined, but they do not include: rape, incest, homelessness, poverty, fatal foetal abnormalities, or in fact almost any of the reasons a woman may have for needing to end a pregnancy. In 2013, only 51 abortions were performed in Northern Ireland; meanwhile, over 1,000 women travelled to other parts of the UK in order to have what should be a simple, safe and legal procedure.

And when Northern Irish women travel, they have to pay. They pay for the flights. They pay for the flights of someone to keep them company – or, if they cannot afford that, they come alone, so they pay in loneliness. They pay for accommodation if they need to stay overnight. They pay in secrecy or in social opprobrium. And they pay for the procedure, as reaffirmed yesterday by the High Court's decision that women from Northern Ireland are not entitled to free abortion on the NHS elsewhere in the UK.

In his ruling, Mr Justice King stated that devolutionary powers have to be taken into account. That means devolution to the home nation governing what a woman may or may not choose for her own body, of course: the idea that such a power could be devolved to the level of the pregnant individual is, apparently, quite unthinkable. This does not prevent Northern Irish women from having abortions. But, as Mara Clarke of the charity Abortion Support Network points out, "The fact that abortion is criminalised changes abortion from an issue of personal morality and choice to one of economy and class." Even for those who can afford it, this is a cruel situation. No woman facing the decision to have a termination should be forced to do so alone and in a strange place, hundreds of miles from home.

But if money is not readily available (and often it isn't, since financial restraint is one of the main reasons women choose abortion) the situation goes beyond cruelty and becomes savagely absurd. The less money you have, the longer you have to save, the further your pregnancy progresses, and the more you must ultimately spend. The consequences of this uterine catch-22 are directly observable in the statistics: in England and Wales, only 1.4 per cent of abortions are performed after 20 weeks’ gestation; but for Abortion Support Network's clients, the rate is 7 per cent. Money is time.

And, Clarke says, the girl in yesterday's test case found herself in exactly that pinch of escalating costs when she became pregnant in 2012:

A 15-year-old girl worked up the courage to tell her mother she was pregnant. Her mother fed the family beans on toast for a week to save an extra £50. The abortion cost £350, plus the charge for the mandated consultation, plus travel. By the time they had raised the money, the young girl was 15 weeks pregnant and the price had been pushed up to £600 for just the procedure. She also had to pay to get a photo ID in order to travel.

That is the tax that Northern Ireland's law places on a child who does not want to become a mother. Almost incredibly, it could have been worse: since Abortion Support Network was founded in October 2009, it has helped to arrange travel and treatment for six women who, by the time they reached England, were found to be over the legal limit for abortion. All six had to return, still pregnant, to have a baby they desperately wanted not to have. Anti-abortion zealots may try to celebrate the six lives they regard as saved; I mourn for six women whose lives have been blighted by compulsory maternity.

As far as I'm concerned, a woman's motives for seeking an abortion are of no relevance to her right to the procedure. Sustaining another life inside your body, at non-negligible risk to your own health and freedom, is an enormous thing to do – women should be answerable to no authority but themselves when deciding whether or not to continue a pregnancy. Abortion Support Network does not ask its clients for their reasons. Nevertheless, some have volunteered a little information about themselves, and what is known comprises a catalogue of distress.

Of the 1,175 women from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland helped by Abortion Support Network since 2009, 62 had serious mental health issues; 56 had serious medical issues; a further nine had been warned against conceiving again after health problems in a previous pregnancy; 48 were in or escaping abusive relationships; 49 were pregnant as a result of rape; three were refugees; seven were homeless; 16 had tried to self-harm or self-abort (one woman, Clarke tells me, was desperate enough to plan a car crash that she hoped would induce miscarriage); 25 were suicidal; 83 said that the man involved had disowned responsibility; and 29 were carrying pregnancies with fatal foetal anomalies such as conjoined twins or anencephaly.

Because these figures are based only on what women have chosen to reveal, they are minimums. The depth and breadth of the miseries compounded by Northern Ireland's absurd law are certainly much, much greater. The 1967 Abortion Act cannot be imposed on Northern Ireland by Westminster, but nor should penalising charges be imposed on Northern Irish women by the English NHS. When women are forced from their own home to get medical treatment, the scapegoats of men's colonial wrangling, the least we might do is give them that treatment as we'd give them any other – free at the point of use.

You can donate to Abortion Support Network at its website.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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Leader: The unresolved Eurozone crisis

The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving.

The eurozone crisis was never resolved. It was merely conveniently forgotten. The vote for Brexit, the terrible war in Syria and Donald Trump’s election as US president all distracted from the single currency’s woes. Yet its contradictions endure, a permanent threat to continental European stability and the future cohesion of the European Union.

The resignation of the Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, following defeat in a constitutional referendum on 4 December, was the moment at which some believed that Europe would be overwhelmed. Among the champions of the No campaign were the anti-euro Five Star Movement (which has led in some recent opinion polls) and the separatist Lega Nord. Opponents of the EU, such as Nigel Farage, hailed the result as a rejection of the single currency.

An Italian exit, if not unthinkable, is far from inevitable, however. The No campaign comprised not only Eurosceptics but pro-Europeans such as the former prime minister Mario Monti and members of Mr Renzi’s liberal-centrist Democratic Party. Few voters treated the referendum as a judgement on the monetary union.

To achieve withdrawal from the euro, the populist Five Star Movement would need first to form a government (no easy task under Italy’s complex multiparty system), then amend the constitution to allow a public vote on Italy’s membership of the currency. Opinion polls continue to show a majority opposed to the return of the lira.

But Europe faces far more immediate dangers. Italy’s fragile banking system has been imperilled by the referendum result and the accompanying fall in investor confidence. In the absence of state aid, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the world’s oldest bank, could soon face ruin. Italy’s national debt stands at 132 per cent of GDP, severely limiting its firepower, and its financial sector has amassed $360bn of bad loans. The risk is of a new financial crisis that spreads across the eurozone.

EU leaders’ record to date does not encourage optimism. Seven years after the Greek crisis began, the German government is continuing to advocate the failed path of austerity. On 4 December, Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, declared that Greece must choose between unpopular “structural reforms” (a euphemism for austerity) or withdrawal from the euro. He insisted that debt relief “would not help” the immiserated country.

Yet the argument that austerity is unsustainable is now heard far beyond the Syriza government. The International Monetary Fund is among those that have demanded “unconditional” debt relief. Under the current bailout terms, Greece’s interest payments on its debt (roughly €330bn) will continually rise, consuming 60 per cent of its budget by 2060. The IMF has rightly proposed an extended repayment period and a fixed interest rate of 1.5 per cent. Faced with German intransigence, it is refusing to provide further funding.

Ever since the European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi, declared in 2012 that he was prepared to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the single currency, EU member states have relied on monetary policy to contain the crisis. This complacent approach could unravel. From the euro’s inception, economists have warned of the dangers of a monetary union that is unmatched by fiscal and political union. The UK, partly for these reasons, wisely rejected membership, but other states have been condemned to stagnation. As Felix Martin writes on page 15, “Italy today is worse off than it was not just in 2007, but in 1997. National output per head has stagnated for 20 years – an astonishing . . . statistic.”

Germany’s refusal to support demand (having benefited from a fixed exchange rate) undermined the principles of European solidarity and shared prosperity. German unemployment has fallen to 4.1 per cent, the lowest level since 1981, but joblessness is at 23.4 per cent in Greece, 19 per cent in Spain and 11.6 per cent in Italy. The youngest have suffered most. Youth unemployment is 46.5 per cent in Greece, 42.6 per cent in Spain and 36.4 per cent in Italy. No social model should tolerate such waste.

“If the euro fails, then Europe fails,” the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has often asserted. Yet it does not follow that Europe will succeed if the euro survives. The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving. In these circumstances, the surprise has been not voters’ intemperance, but their patience.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump