Sometimes, it feels like every day brings a new statement on abortion from someone whose opinion you really don’t want to hear. Actually, sometimes it feels like it’s the very people whose opinions you’d least like to hear who are most likely to vocalise them – or, at least, the men who you least like to think of in relation to your sex life.
That’s what I thought, anyway, when I saw that Republican presidential candidate and noted terrible opinion-haver Donald Trump was suggesting that abortion should be illegal, and women punished for seeking one.
Given the frequency of these sort of comments, it’s easy to start finding them more tedious than scary. Yet this one was unexpectedly terrifying. Although Trump had no answer when asked what the sanction should be, his casual phrasing – “there has to be some form of punishment” – spoke to something many feminists fear: that a significant proportion of men believe women ought to be sanctioned for seeking autonomy.
In Trump’s comments, there is an echo of the logic that drives Margaret Atwood’s dystopia The Handmaid’s Tale, in which women are kept like broodmares, reduced almost solely to their reproductive capacity. They are not individuals who have sovereignty over their own bodies, but subjects whose reproductive capacity belongs to society at large. They must be punished – like naughty children, but without the innocence – if they go against the wishes of the presiding dogma.
Feminists know the response script to this so well by now it seems almost superfluous to restate it: small-government rhetoric that defies logic to still believe in policing women’s bodies is contradictory and patronising; women will always have abortions, and it’s pointless to try to stop them; reproductive rights are the cornerstone of a progressive society. Yet the response to Trump also contained elements which, although broadly on “my” side, were disquieting, particularly from English campaigners: ones that mocked America, specifically, for being backwards.
When a UK citizen mocks America for its abortion rhetoric, it is, to put it mildly, a bit rich. For if what Trump said seems shocking, it’s not as bad as the reality that many women in the UK actually face; specifically those residing in Northern Ireland, where the 1967 Abortion Act – the piece of legislation which provides exemptions to the otherwise illegal act of obtaining an abortion – does not apply. It is this act that protects women in Scotland, England and Wales from prosecution if they seek a termination, essentially acting as a caveat to the earlier 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, which makes abortion a criminal offence – and is still on the statute books.
If that sounds confusing, it is a confusion that works to the benefit of the pro-life lobby. Plenty of women are not aware that the 1967 Act doesn’t replace the previous law, and even fewer know that it doesn’t extend to Northern Ireland. In fact, if you were to stop English women in the street and take a straw poll, it’s likely a sizeable number wouldn’t be aware that there are parts of the UK where a woman is not able to get a safe, legal abortion. Yet official figures from 2013 suggest that around 800 Northern Irish women make the journey to England every year.
Often undertaking the journey covertly, these women are not only forced overseas to access what is in truth a relatively minor (and safe) healthcare procedure, but are made to pay to do so – because they, unlike other UK residents, are not eligible to have the procedure on the NHS.
Alternatively, they can remain in Northern Ireland and obtain an abortion illegally; either by importing the abortion pill, or by other methods. In January this year, a 21-year-old woman from County Down appeared in court after doing the former; charged under the 1861 Act, she could face a sentence up to life imprisonment.
This is scarier than Trump’s blitheness. Let me state it again: if you are reading this in the UK, it is your government allowing this to happen. It is under the law of your country that women are forced to risk their lives taking medication without the supervision of a doctor; are tried for 19th-century crimes in 2016; are forced to make difficult and costly journeys to access healthcare that ought to be available to them under the principle that guides the rest of the NHS: free at the point of service.
These are women who have to place Ryanair flights they can’t really afford on credit cards because the state has decided to make their lives slightly more difficult, rather than rethink its own prejudices. Because it is easier to shepherd them out of the way – to make them go and have their abortions somewhere over there, so that those made uncomfortable by the biological reality of female bodies don’t have to face the sort of tough questions the women themselves must consider.
We are excellent at making women someone else’s problem. It’s easy to see why: it is certainly less miserable to laugh at the backwardness of attitudes elsewhere (America; Ireland) than it is to face up to the brutality-by-omission happening on our own shores. But statistically, you know a woman who has had an abortion (although, statistically, those lawmakers do too).
I am always wary of the idea one need imagine misogyny hurting a mother, sister or daughter in order to acknowledge it as a problem, but I’m also practical, and if that is what it takes to conjure up the appropriate empathy, so be it. Because that is, ultimately, the question: if you couldn’t forget that one in three of the women you know might undergo this, what would you want the law to be?
The FPA has guidance on how you can help campaign for abortion rights in Northern Ireland. Additionally, Abortion Support Network accept donations to help fund women from the island of Ireland to access abortions overseas.