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28 September 2013updated 26 Sep 2015 11:16am

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.

By Frances Perraudin

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.

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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.”

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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.