When will abortion become legal for women in Northern Ireland?

Protestors gathering for the International Day for the Decriminalization of Abortion want better reproductive rights for women in developing countries, but few are aware of the problems faced by women in Northern Ireland.

When Suzanne Lee, a 23-year-old student, found out she was pregnant in August 2012, she knew she had to have an abortion. She decided to buy unregulated abortion drugs online for around £80. Suzanne’s chemically induced termination was incredibly painful – the pills cause heavy bleeding and vomiting – and she had to go through the whole experience without the supervision of a medical professional. When she told her GP that she planned to take the drugs, he advised her to get in touch if there was a problem – to give her more guidance would have been illegal.

This was Northern Ireland. On 28 September, women’s rights groups will gather for the International Day for the Decriminalization of Abortion, protesting for the reproductive health rights of women in developing countries. But what is much less well known is that this disempowerment also exists in one of the four home countries of the UK.

The British Abortion Act of 1967 was never extended to Northern Ireland and the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 still dictates Northern Ireland’s abortion law, which makes it illegal to seek to terminate a pregnancy or help a woman terminate pregnancy except where it poses a serious long-term or permanent threat to the mental or physical health of the mother. The maximum penalty remains, forbiddingly, ‘penal servitude for life.’

Despite being UK tax payers, Northern Irish women can’t even obtain a free abortion on the NHS in England, Scotland and Wales, because it is defined as an ‘elective procedure’ – a choice. The overall cost of obtaining a termination for Northern Irish women, including travel, accommodation and the procedure, can be anything from £400 to around £2,000. “When I ordered the abortion drugs, I was really scared they wouldn’t arrive in the post before the 9-week limit,” says Suzanne. “I would have had to find £2,000 from somewhere at the last minute.”

The total number of Northern Irish women seeking to terminate their pregnancy is unknown. According to the UK Department of Health, an average of twenty women a week travel from Northern Ireland to Britain for an abortion, a figure which is certainly an underestimate, as it is based on the addresses women themselves supply. Recent figures released by the N. I. Health and Social Care Board suggest that only 35 legal terminations took place in Northern Ireland between 2011 and 2012. The Family Planning Association says the rates of women buying the new and potentially dangerous abortion drugs online are rising; but, again, accurate figures are unavailable.

Mara Clarke of Abortion Support Network, an England-based charity that provides emergency funding to women who need to travel out of the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland to obtain an abortion in a private clinic, says those she has helped have ranged from women raped by family members to girls as young as fourteen and middle-aged women who already have more children than they can look after. “I once got a call from a father whose 19-year-old daughter had been raped and was nine weeks pregnant. He had three other children, his wife had died and he had been on disability living allowance for five years. He was desperate for help. The public has no idea what’s going on. It’s 2013 and we hear from women who’ve drunk bleach and downed packets of birth control pills with gin.”

Anna Lo, one of only two members of the N. I. Legislative Assembly (MLAs) who are openly pro-choice (the other being Steven Agnew, leader of the Greens), says that it is partly a class issue: “Who can afford to raise £2,000 at the last minute to travel to England? What if you’re on benefits, or in a low paid job? Politicians are telling poor women, ‘If you can’t afford to go to England, you have to have a child. Tough.’”

Confusion surrounding the law among both the general public and medical professionals is widespread, says Breedagh Hughes, director of the Royal College of Midwives, Northern Ireland. “People presume that you can legally obtain an abortion in Northern Ireland in cases of rape and incest – you can’t.”

In April 2013, after a decade of campaigning by the Family Planning Association of Northern Ireland, draft guidelines were put to public consultation for a period of sixteen weeks which ended on 29 July this year. Medical bodies, like the Royal College of Midwives and the Royal College of Nursing, and pro-choice campaigners have dismissed the document as not fit for purpose.

A clarification of the law is the best campaigners are hoping for at the moment, they don’t expect to see the Abortion Act extended any time soon. “The only equality that passes around here is the equality between Catholics and Protestants,” says Goretti Horgan, an academic and campaigner with the Northern Irish pro-choice group Alliance for Choice. The current Northern Irish minister of health, social services and public safety, Edwin Poots, is a young-Earth creationist, who declared in the Northern Irish Assembly in 2000: “Pro-choice is pro-death … the child has no choice; he is aborted if his mother so chooses.”

When Labour came to power in 1997, Northern Ireland’s pro-choice campaigners thought the Abortion Act would finally be extended – but it wasn’t to be. Westminster’s determination to establish the peace process meant they were unwilling to touch on the controversial topic. The then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and Labour MP Mo Mowlam later admitted her government had ignored the issue for fear of “stirring up the tribal elders”.

“Politicians are very happy to stick their heads in the sand and pretend abortion isn’t happening,” says Fiona Bloomer, a lecturer in social policy at the University of Ulster. “But there is a demand for abortion in Northern Ireland, whether women are getting pills or travelling, and politicians are quite content to let that happen.”

Although nobody is currently being prosecuted, pro-choice campaigners say that policymakers in Britain and Northern Ireland will eventually need to address the extraordinary anomaly that what is considered a fundamental health right for women in one part of the UK is a crime in another.

Anti-abortion protestors in Northern Ireland. Photo:Getty.
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Inside Big Ben: why the world’s most famous clock will soon lose its bong

Every now and then, even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care.

London is soon going to lose one of its most familiar sounds when the world-famous Big Ben falls silent for repairs. The “bonging” chimes that have marked the passing of time for Londoners since 1859 will fall silent for months beginning in 2017 as part of a three-year £29m conservation project.

Of course, “Big Ben” is the nickname of the Great Bell and the bell itself is not in bad shape – even though it does have a huge crack in it.

The bell weighs nearly 14 tonnes and it cracked in 1859 when it was first bonged with a hammer that was way too heavy.

The crack was never repaired. Instead the bell was rotated one eighth of a turn and a lighter (200kg) hammer was installed. The cracked bell has a characteristic sound which we have all grown to love.

Big Ben strikes. UK Parliament.

Instead, it is the Elizabeth Tower (1859) and the clock mechanism (1854), designed by Denison and Airy, that need attention.

Any building or machine needs regular maintenance – we paint our doors and windows when they need it and we repair or replace our cars quite routinely. It is convenient to choose a day when we’re out of the house to paint the doors, or when we don’t need the car to repair the brakes. But a clock just doesn’t stop – especially not a clock as iconic as the Great Clock at the Palace of Westminster.

Repairs to the tower are long overdue. There is corrosion damage to the cast iron roof and to the belfry structure which keeps the bells in place. There is water damage to the masonry and condensation problems will be addressed, too. There are plumbing and electrical works to be done for a lift to be installed in one of the ventilation shafts, toilet facilities and the fitting of low-energy lighting.

Marvel of engineering

The clock mechanism itself is remarkable. In its 162-year history it has only had one major breakdown. In 1976 the speed regulator for the chimes broke and the mechanism sped up to destruction. The resulting damage took months to repair.

The weights that drive the clock are, like the bells and hammers, unimaginably huge. The “drive train” that keeps the pendulum swinging and that turns the hands is driven by a weight of about 100kg. Two other weights that ring the bells are each over a tonne. If any of these weights falls out of control (as in the 1976 incident), they could do a lot of damage.

The pendulum suspension spring is especially critical because it holds up the huge pendulum bob which weighs 321kg. The swinging pendulum releases the “escapement” every two seconds which then turns the hands on the clock’s four faces. If you look very closely, you will see that the minute hand doesn’t move smoothly but it sits still most of the time, only moving on each tick by 1.5cm.

The pendulum swings back and forth 21,600 times a day. That’s nearly 8m times a year, bending the pendulum spring. Like any metal, it has the potential to suffer from fatigue. The pendulum needs to be lifted out of the clock so that the spring can be closely inspected.

The clock derives its remarkable accuracy in part from the temperature compensation which is built into the construction of the pendulum. This was yet another of John Harrison’s genius ideas (you probably know him from longitude fame). He came up with the solution of using metals of differing temperature expansion coefficient so that the pendulum doesn’t change in length as the temperature changes with the seasons.

In the Westminster clock, the pendulum shaft is made of concentric tubes of steel and zinc. A similar construction is described for the clock in Trinity College Cambridge and near perfect temperature compensation can be achieved. But zinc is a ductile metal and the tube deforms with time under the heavy load of the 321kg pendulum bob. This “creeping” will cause the temperature compensation to jam up and become less effective.

So stopping the clock will also be a good opportunity to dismantle the pendulum completely and to check that the zinc tube is sliding freely. This in itself is a few days' work.

What makes it tick

But the truly clever bit of this clock is the escapement. All clocks have one - it’s what makes the clock tick, quite literally. Denison developed his new gravity escapement especially for the Westminster clock. It decouples the driving force of the falling weight from the periodic force that maintains the motion of the pendulum. To this day, the best tower clocks in England use the gravity escapement leading to remarkable accuracy – better even than that of your quartz crystal wrist watch.

In Denison’s gravity escapement, the “tick” is the impact of the “legs” of the escapement colliding with hardened steel seats. Each collision causes microscopic damage which, accumulated over millions of collisions per year, causes wear and tear affecting the accuracy of the clock. It is impossible to inspect the escapement without stopping the clock. Part of the maintenance proposed during this stoppage is a thorough overhaul of the escapement and the other workings of the clock.

The Westminster clock is a remarkable icon for London and for England. For more than 150 years it has reminded us of each hour, tirelessly. That’s what I love about clocks – they seem to carry on without a fuss. But every now and then even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care. After this period of pampering, “Big Ben” ought to be set for another 100 or so years of trouble-free running.

The Conversation

Hugh Hunt is a Reader in Engineering Dynamics and Vibration at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.