Abortion access is widening in England. Yet in Northern Ireland, women still risk prison

In Northern Ireland, ending a pregnancy is subject to archaic laws that carry the harshest criminal penalties in Europe.

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Later this month, Belfast’s High Court will hear a judicial review from a woman prosecuted for helping her 15-year-old daughter buy abortion pills online. The girl had been physically and mentally abused. If the review fails, she faces a criminal trial and a jail sentence of up to ten years.

“The mother is not a criminal, her daughter is not a criminal, yet the law treats them as such,” says Grainne Teggart, campaigns manager for Amnesty UK, which has worked closely with the family’s legal team to contest the prosecution.

More than fifty years after the Abortion Act 1967, women and girls in Northern Ireland still risk incarceration for accessing a service available on the NHS in the rest of the UK. In 2016, a woman was given a one-year suspended sentence for self-inducing an abortion because she couldn’t afford the cost of travel to England.

Northern Irish women are used to being left behind. Last week, the government announced plans to legalise home use of the early abortion pill Misoprostol in England, bringing the country into line with Scotland and Wales. Currently, women ending a pregnancy in the first 10 weeks must take two pills at a clinic, 24 to 48 hours apart. Campaigners say the move will spare them the trauma of miscarrying on the journey home.

Recently, I returned to my hometown of Belfast after 17 years in London and Dublin. My husband, baby and I have temporarily moved in with my parents. Every day, I work from the desk I studied at as a teenager, the same tea stains on the mango wood, its drawers stuffed with old diaries and GCSE textbooks. But beyond the familiar confines of my childhood home is a city transformed from the one I left behind. The neighbourhoods are less homogenous, the man buns more prolific. On the surface, Belfast seems welcoming and inclusive. Yet when it comes to women’s reproductive rights, little has progressed since the days when my friends and I would visit the family planning clinic in town to get the pill, while outside, stony-faced women clutching bibles called us sinners and whores. 

“The UK government is making progress for women in England, but it’s further isolating women in Northern Ireland, who are still subjected to archaic abortion laws that carry the harshest criminal penalties in Europe,” explains Grainne.

After Ireland voted Yes to abortion earlier this year, pro-choice activists focused their attention north of the border. Unsurprisingly, the ruling DUP hit back against extending abortion services in NI – leader Arlene Foster claimed nationalist voters would turn to the DUP as “the only party that supports the unborn”.

But while tribal politics reign in the region, there’s an appetite for social reform across the divide. According to the 2016 Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey, nearly 80 per cent of the public believe abortion should be legal when a woman has become pregnant as a result of rape or incest, and almost two-thirds support terminations in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities.

“We can’t be duped anymore by the DUP pretending they represent the majority voice in Northern Ireland, especially when it comes to social issues,” says Emma Campbell of abortion rights group Alliance for Choice. “We’re frequently contacted by women who are unable to avail of abortion services in England because they can’t travel. They might have very ill children or can’t give short notice at work and are often distraught and frightened they’re going to get arrested. We have to tell them that if they go to hospital after taking abortion pills they should say they’ve miscarried, but many don’t seek help if they think they might be reported to the police. It’s a ticking clock as to when first woman becomes seriously ill.”

In the wake of #repealtheeighth, pro-choice groups have called for an abortion referendum in Northern Ireland – an increasingly unlikely prospect, given it’s been more than 18 months since devolved government collapsed, leaving many voters disenfranchised. Last month, Alliance For Choice launched #PennyPost, a social media campaign to encourage people in the region to write to Penny Mordaunt, Minister for Women and Equalities, urging her to stand up for Northern Irish women’s rights. The issue of direct rule is a political hot potato – detractors say any attempt by Westminster to intervene would threaten the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.

Campbell isn’t buying it. “In February, CEDAW (the UN committee on the elimination of discrimination against women) told the British government that NI’s abortion laws violate women’s rights. It’s the state party’s responsibility to intervene when a devolved party fails to uphold someone’s human rights.”

Theresa May’s hands may be tied, but Westminster had plenty of opportunity to act in the past, suggests Campbell. “Until 2008 [when policing and justice powers were devolved to the NI Assembly] Westminster had the power to change abortion law in the region directly.” However, a parliamentary bill aimed at extending the Abortion Act to NI was blocked by Harriet Harman. At the time, it was speculated that the Labour government struck a deal with the DUP to leave the abortion laws intact in return for their support for its plans to detain terrorism suspects without charge for 42 days.

“There’s an attitude that Northern Ireland is backward, yet there’s been no acknowledgment of the role of Britain has played in how we got here,” argues Campbell. I see her point. I spent more than a decade in London and was continually surprised at the lack of knowledge about the region (I met a number of people who were unaware that Ireland was partitioned). Until the Tories climbed into bed with the DUP, Northern Ireland got little coverage in the media. Perhaps it’s because we’ve always been “a little bit godbothery”. Or maybe our neighbours on the mainland are reluctant to acknowledge the sectarianism and human rights abuses on British soil.

“It’s a bit like the Tutsis and Hutus in Rwanda,” says Campbell. “There’s this idea they’ve always been in conflict without any reference to the Belgian influence that encouraged those tribal differences to become tribal wars. You have to you think of the institutional structures that got us here.”

But how we got here doesn’t serve Northern Irish women who need help now. The question is, how do we move forward? Fortunately, there are those in Westminster who are willing to listen. Labour MP Stella Creasy, who last year secured Northern Irish women access to free abortions on the NHS in England, is continuing the fight.

Leading a cross-party initiative, Creasy recently launched a campaign to repeal sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act, which criminalise abortion. “Women need to be able to access healthcare without on a train or a boat, or leaving their support network,” she tells me. “Stormont has not sat for 18 months, and it's time we stop turning out backs on this issue. I make no apology for putting the equality, safety and dignity of women first – for too long, the women of Northern Ireland have been left behind.” 

As the Belfast mother awaits her fate, the government has a moral duty to act.