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28 September 2018updated 09 Sep 2021 5:38pm

The unlikely allies in the struggle for abortion rights in Northern Ireland

The demand for reform has attracted the support of Conservative and Labour MPs, as well as four of Northern Ireland’s five largest parties. 

By Amanda Ferguson

Conservative Party MPs Anna Soubry, Huw Merriman and Nicky Morgan were in Belfast on Friday for meetings – hosted by Amnesty International UK and the Family Planning Association – on the push for abortion law reform.

“Women and girls in Northern Ireland are not second-class citizens. They deserve access to free, safe and legal abortion services without having to travel to other parts of the UK,” Soubry said. 

Abortion law in Northern Ireland dates back to the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, making abortion illegal in almost all circumstances – one of the most restrictive laws of its kind in the world.

Meanwhile, Sinn Féin deputy leader Michelle O’Neill, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood, Alliance Party leader Naomi Long, and UUP MLA Doug Beattie – have issued a joint statement calling for Westminster to decriminalise abortion

In it, they raise their shared concern about the harm being done to women under Victorian-era legislation, and state their agreement “with the recent ruling of the UK Supreme Court that abortion law in Northern Ireland is in need of radical reconsideration”.

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They are calling for the UK government to decriminalise abortion by repealing sections 58 and 59 of the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act and to ensure a human rights compliant framework governing access to abortion.

The 1967 Abortion Act in Britain, allowing for abortion up to 24-28 weeks, was never extended to Northern Ireland. Access to abortion is only permitted if a woman’s life is at risk or there is risk to her mental or physical health that is long term or permanent.

Thirteen abortions, within the current law, took place in Northern Ireland hospitals in 2016/17. However, every day women travel to Britain for an abortion, while many others risk prosecution for self-administering abortion pills at home, or they are compelled to carry pregnancies to full term.

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Supreme Court judges have said the existing law is incompatible with human rights law in cases of fatal foetal abnormality and sexual crime. Northern Ireland’s restrictive abortion regime is also under intense scrutiny following the Republic of Ireland’s referendum vote to repeal the Eighth Amendment of the constitution earlier this year.

Yet no action is being taken by the Tory government to reform abortion law in Northern Ireland. Secretary of State Karen Bradley insists abortion is a devolved matter for politicians at Stormont.

From June 2017, following an intervention from Labour MP Stella Creasy, women from Northern Ireland have been able to access free abortions in England. 

According to the UK Department of Health, last year 919 women travelled from Northern Ireland to England to access abortion. This represented an increase of over 25 per cent on the year before, and was the highest level since 2011.

However, many women, including those in coercive relationships and with caring responsibilities, cannot travel. At present such women order tablets online from websites such as Women On Web and Women Help Women.

It is understood around 100 of these type of pill packages were intercepted by the Police Service of Northern Ireland last year.

Those ordering them risk prosecution in the courts, not to mention taking Mifepristone and Misoprostol pills without medical supervision.

Homes and businesses have been raided by police, including on International Women’s Day 2017. Laptops have been seized and at least two prosecutions have been made.

In 2016, after being reported to the police by her flatmates in 2014, a 21-year-old woman was given a three month prison sentence suspended for two years after she pleaded guilty to procuring her own abortion with a poison and of supplying a poison with intent to procure a miscarriage.

Earlier this month the Belfast High Court case of a mother challenging a decision by the Public Prosecution Service in Northern Ireland to prosecute her for buying her then 15-year-old daughter abortion pills online was adjourned until 6 November 2018. 

Grainne Teggart, Amnesty International campaigns manager for Northern Ireland, tells the New Statesman it has been “a devastating five years for the mother and her family”.

“It is a pain she should never have suffered,” Teggart says. “If she was living in any other part of the UK where safe and legal abortion pills are easily accessible, her family wouldn’t be facing this traumatic ordeal.

“The judges must see that this is such obvious cruelty, we implore them to carefully consider the implications of this ground breaking case.

“They have the power to not only give this woman her life back, but to give hope to all women and girls living in Northern Ireland.

“The case underscores the urgent need for decriminalisation of abortion. Women cannot wait.

“The time for inaction is over, Westminster can and must act.”

South Belfast Green Party MLA Clare Bailey says it is unsustainable that Northern Ireland has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world when women in Scotland, England, Wales and the Republic of Ireland will have access to services.

“Despite the overwhelming evidence from public opinion, that the majority across NI and Ireland as a whole want to see reform our politicians are not doing so,” she says. “People do not want women criminalised for accessing abortion healthcare.”

After Stella Creasy’s intervention, British Pregnancy Advisory Service won the tender to book abortion services for women from Northern Ireland via the freephone helpline number 0333 234 2184.

An assessment by professionals is done over the phone and if you earn under £16,000 you can qualify for free travel to, and accommodation in, England, but the service is not actively promoted in Northern Ireland, Bailey says.

So the vulnerable and at risk turn to online.

“Scotland, England and Wales have now changed their law to allow women to take the pills at home, but we in Northern Ireland are still criminalising women,” Bailey says. 

“That is unacceptable.

“Abortion law needs to be decriminalised across the whole UK and Northern Ireland must not be left out.”

Amanda Ferguson is a journalist based in Belfast. Follow her @AmandaFBelfast.