Thirty-six hours, that’s how long it took the Polish Parliament to reject a proposed near total ban on abortion last week. Parliament had, apparently, been “taught humility” by women across the country, who brought the eyes of the world onto the streets of Poland when tens of thousands thronged the streets in a mass strike clad all in black, for their self-styled “Black Monday” protest.
The Government’s swift and grovelling change of heart, was a resounding victory for people power that will go down in the history books.
Poland already had one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe, where abortion is only permitted in cases of pregnancies resulting from rape or incest, in cases of fatal or severe foetal impairment, or when the woman’s life or health is in danger. The proposed ban would have made it illegal in almost all of these circumstances except when doctors deem it necessary to save a woman’s life.
While Poland’s proposed law triggered solidarity protests all over the globe, including here in the UK, few people were aware that much closer to home in Northern Ireland women already face some of the most restrictive abortion access in the world. What Poland’s women managed to stave off, Northern Ireland’s women are already subjected to.
In Northern Ireland the government upholds a 19th century law of near-total ban on abortion, even in cases of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormality. In other words, a pregnant girl raped by her own father, unless she travels elsewhere to seek help, has no choice but to give birth. Equally, a woman with a tragic diagnosis of a fatal foetal anomaly is unable to have a termination.
Shockingly, in the letter of the Northern Ireland law, a woman who dares to seek abortion, or anyone assisting her, could face the harshest criminal penalty — of life imprisonment. This, for a health service freely provided on the NHS everywhere else in the UK.
Of course, human rights organisation such as Amnesty believe that a woman seeking an abortion is not a criminal, and that decisions about women’s bodies should be a matter for them and their doctors, rather than politicians and the courts. And indeed, that is a popular view in Northern Ireland, where there is overwhelming public support for reform of its draconian abortion law. Seven in 10 people supported change in an independent poll commissioned by Amnesty in 2014. Despite this – and a December 2015 High Court judgment that Northern Ireland’s law breaches the European Convention on Human Rights – its government has repeatedly refused to introduce reform.
Yet the abortion law in Northern Ireland is not only a breach of international human rights law and standards. The stigma associated with the laws adds to women’s trauma. Aoife, from Northern Ireland, who had an abortion in England when she was 17-years-old, told Amnesty:
“My guilt and shame was not about my decision to have an abortion; it was because society had made me feel like I was a fallen woman, dirty and criminal. That shame, that stigma was the most damaging part of my experience.”
Women in Northern Ireland can take heart from the victory Poland’s women won last week. It shows that concerted mass pressure can force law-makers to allow women the simple rights they are entitled to by any proper reading of human rights standards and obligations.
Research by Amnesty shows the extent to which Northern Ireland’s women are still criminalised and shamed by a regressive and repressive system which endangers their health and even destroys lives. Unsurprisingly it is the women who can’t afford the journeys to abortion services in private clinics outside Northern Ireland who suffer the most. Last April the case of a young woman who was reported to the police by her housemates for having self-terminated a pregnancy with the drugs she bought online should add to the public outrage about the appalling human cost of leaving the laws as they are.
Poland’s politicians may have been “taught humility” last week, but in Northern Ireland’s politicians still seemingly need a basic lesson in humanity.
Join Amnesty International’s campaign for abortion law reform in Northern Ireland: sign the petition now.
Kasia Staszewska is Amnesty UK’s Women’s Human Rights Programme Manager and is originally from Poland. She was one of the organisers of a solidarity “Black Monday’” protest in London.