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14 June 2017

Barring Northern Irish women from NHS abortions is no technicality – it’s a deeply political act

The Supreme Court judges admitted they had sympathy for the Northern Irish women but were restrained by the decision of health secretary Jeremy Hunt. 

By Sian Norris

Two women, known as A and B, challenged the legality of the Secretary of State for Health’s failure to provide abortion services to women from Northern Ireland free on the NHS in England. They were a mother and a daughter, who travelled to England when the daughter became pregnant, aged 15, to get an abortion at a private clinic for £900.

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court dismissed their appeals by a majority of three to two.

On a week when access to abortion in Northern Ireland has been under the spotlight, this ruling is a real blow to the campaign to bring the law into line with the rest of the UK. Worse, it sends a clear message to the women of Northern Ireland from our government: we will continue to deny your right to bodily autonomy while it suits us politically.

Let’s be clear – this was a political judgement. The Supreme Court judges admitted they had sympathy for A and B, but were restrained by the decision of health secretary Jeremy Hunt. He said that the continued ban of free terminations on the NHS to Northern Irish women and girls was out of “respect” for the democratic decisions of their Assembly and its largest party the Democratic Unionist Party.

Of course, the Conservative party is currently trying to do a deal with the anti-choice DUP to help prop up its minority government.

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So what is the state of abortion law in Northern Ireland? The 1969 Act that allows abortion in certain circumstances in England, Wales and Scotland was never extended to the province. As a result, abortion remains criminalised in Northern Ireland – even in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, or rape and incest. The penalties for women trying to access a termination can include life imprisonment. This makes the abortion laws governing Northern Ireland among the strictest in Europe.

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Every year, 2,000 women and girls cross the Irish Sea for an abortion, where they must pay up to £900 to access medical care that other UK women have the right to receive for free. For women and girls who are too poor to afford the travel, accommodation and medical bills to access a safe and legal abortion, there are pills to be bought online. These pills come with their own health risks – and a 14-year prison sentence.

The judgement today states that women living in Northern Ireland are not entitled to the same legal rights as women living elsewhere in the UK. Hunt has supported this not for economic concerns or even social ones, but for political expediency. It is a frightening and devastating sign that the Conservative administration is happy to use women’s health, safety and human rights as a pawn in their political game.

Make no mistake – Northern Ireland’s abortion laws are cruel. In fact, they have been condemned as such by the United Nations. How can it be that in 2017, our government is endorsing cruelty to its female citizens, and creating a hierarchy of rights depending on which county in the UK you live?

The cruelty is multi-faceted. For women who want a termination because they’ve learnt they have a fatal foetal abnormality, the existing laws can put them under de facto house arrest. Unable to bear the trauma of having friendly acquaintances ask questions about a baby who will not survive, many women feel unable to go out. They must then go through the horrors of a still birth, or endure the grief of having a child that can only survive a few hours or days.

For women and girls who want an abortion because they’ve been raped, having to carry their abuser’s baby to term can exacerbate the trauma and emotional distress associated with male sexual violence.

And for women and girls who are simply pregnant and don’t want to be, denying them a termination forces them to undergo the physical and emotional stress and health risk of pregnancy and birth.

The right to abortion is the right to bodily integrity. A woman’s ability to choose what she does with her own body is essential to her dignity and her autonomy. That the state continues to deny women and girls access to this right is a disgrace. That they do so because it suits them politically is self-serving and inhumane.

Hunt’s comments, today’s judgement, the appointment of anti-choice MP David Lidington to Justice secretary and the alliance with the DUP have created a perfect storm for women and girls in Northern Ireland. Any parliamentary attempts to change the laws and ensure Northern Irish women have the same access to reproductive healthcare as every other woman in the UK are now likely to be put on hold.

That’s not good enough. We need every MP and activist who believes in progressive politics to stand in solidarity with A and B and reject a political agenda that denies women equal access to reproductive healthcare. We need them to stand up and say abortion is a human rights issue and therefore cannot be a devolved issue.

To do otherwise is to compromise women’s right to equal rights, autonomy and dignity. It’s to accept that women’s rights are nothing more than a pawn in a political game.