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.

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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.