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10 October 2018updated 08 Sep 2021 1:58pm

“A student nurse calls, terrified”: The diary of a Northern Irish abortion rights activist

In Northern Ireland, abortion is only permitted if a woman’s life is at risk or there is a permanent or serious risk to her mental or physical health.

By Emma Campbell

Before I became an abortion rights activist, I was a photographer and picture editor in London. I’d moved away from Belfast when I was a teenager, like so many others did and still do; the peace process had only just been brokered and it was still a suffocating, nervous and parochial place.

I studied documentary photography in Newport, but after over a decade working away from home, not really having the time or money to concentrate on the work I wanted to make, I decided to move home and do a new Masters in Photography at Ulster University. Despite knowing people who’d had to travel for abortions when I was younger, I hadn’t really thought about it much again. In Northern Ireland, abortion is only permitted if a woman’s life is at risk or there is a permanent or serious risk to her mental or physical health.

But back in Belfast, in 2010, I saw a woman called Bernie Smyth on the BBC and I was gobsmacked she was allowed away with so many untruths on television. I knew I needed to make this my Masters project. I went to a few Alliance for Choice and Belfast Feminist Meetings and very quickly became heavily involved in the many facets of activism and organising. I retraced the steps of some abortion stories given to me by the Abortion Support Network and photographed those journeys. I’ve been unable to tear myself away ever since. This is a week in my life:


A High Court case, brought by a woman forced to travel for an abortion after being told her baby would not survive, means a lot of behind the scenes support for people who have been in similar circumstances, namely foetal anomaly diagnoses in the second trimester. I do this mostly on my mobile whilst my 19-month-old toddler is running around disassembling the living room. As well as this unofficial support, we also have to communicate frequently with legal academics, barristers and experts on aspects of the peculiar Northern Ireland circumstances to try and see if there are ways of approaching the restrictions on abortion in Northern Ireland creatively.


An early morning flight to Manchester to speak to supporters of the Manchester Abortion Rights Campaign in the Irish World Heritage Centre. We try to impress upon them how much we need the support of English, Welsh and Scottish MPs this year. We are faced with a lack of real representation in Parliament due to Sinn Fein not taking their seats and the DUP continually blocking any progress on abortion rights, despite nearly 70 per cent of their own voters wanting change. The reaction from the filled room is overwhelmingly positive and a lot of people come up after to speak to us about their own journeys for abortions when they used to live in Ireland and Northern Ireland. Lots of people reach out to help us, phew!

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Today is full of admin, catching up on emails, and working through our plans for the launch of Diana Johnson’s decriminalisation bill. As well as MPs like Johnson, we are working with the British Pregnancy Advisory Service and the London Irish Abortion Rights Campaign. Halfway through the day there is a call from a young student nurse. She is terrified that if she orders abortion pills online she will get caught and arrested. Although we try and reassure people, we can never promise noone will end up speaking to the police. In 2016, a 19-year-old woman was arrested after her flatmates called the Police Service of Northern Ireland about her use of the abortion pills. The woman had been trying to save up to travel to England for the procedure but couldn’t get the money fast enough.


Travelling back to Belfast today, and having conversations with some amazing women who have already spoken out about their experiences under the cruel Northern Ireland near-ban on abortion. One woman had to ask a neighbour to babysit, then fear retribution from the whole street when she returned to find the carer had divulged the purpose of her sudden travel. Luckily, she found people who supported her. But others have had to stay quiet, because they risk their jobs if they work for a Catholic school, or worry about what the courts would make of her decision when agreeing parental access. 

We’ve asked them to contribute to our work for the decriminalisation bill. One has already been through a Supreme Court case as an intervener. Their strength and dignity is always so humbling. The work of activists would be so much more difficult without the bravery of these women and their families.


The adjourned court case is heard again, and we get some donations from supporters who’ve sold jumpers and jewellery for us. We get an email from a woman who has had to go through the pain of a foetal anomaly diagnosis. She wants help and signposting, but she also offers to share her experience with us, if we think it would be useful. Again, I am so heartened and humbled by another amazing woman, but also angry that she has had to travel.


A flight to Glasgow, to prepare for the Scottish National Party conference fringe event we’re attending in collaboration with Engender and the Reproductive Health Law and Policy Advisory Group (RHLPAG). We are thinking about the devolution question in particular and how to garner support from SNP. Human rights not being a devolved issue doesn’t seem to hit it for some, even when they are totally supportive of Northern Irish people accessing abortion healthcare.


We have our event at SNP, and the questions from the room are interesting. Most people don’t know about Section 5 in Northern Ireland, which compels you to report any serious crime, otherwise you are committing a crime yourself. I also get a message about someone who ordered pills online but they haven’t arrived. She doesn’t know who to speak to or where to turn. She absolutely cannot travel – she’d lose her job – and she doesn’t know how she’d explain it to her boyfriend. He doesn’t know she’s pregnant, and she doesn’t want him to. All we can do is direct her to Women Help Women and try and reassure her that it still isn’t too late, that she’s still safely in the first trimester. We pass her the number and tell her to call again if she has any other questions.

Emma Campbell is the co-chair of Alliance for Choice, an organisation that campaigns to end the criminalisation of abortion and gain access to reproductive justice in NI. ​