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