In Alabama, abortion rights are under threat. In Northern Ireland, they never existed

Every patriarchal culture finds its own way to police female bodies, yet at root they’re all the same.

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“Dear people facing abortion pushback, we know how you feel…” So starts an open letter from the Northern Irish activist organisation Alliance for Choice, advising residents of Alabama on what to expect when their access to reproductive care becomes almost as restrictive as that of residents of Northern Ireland.

I write “almost”, because while the new law passed by 25 white male Republicans is the most restrictive in the US, only abortion providers, not patients themselves, would face criminal charges for any involvement in a termination. The same is not true of Northern Ireland, where women who are deemed to have caused their own abortions could face up to life imprisonment. One Northern Irish mother is currently facing charges for procuring abortion pills for her 15-year-old daughter.

Alliance for Choice’s letter is straightforward and practical, discussing such matters as forging strong relationships with online abortion pill providers and keeping clear of potential informants. It is neither patronising nor bitter, although one might argue the authors have every right to be.

The world’s eyes are on Alabama, not on a country in which women are already enduring worse restrictions. A lazy cultural imperialism – one that says “it’s always been like that for them” and “things will progress, eventually, one day” – has bred complacency in those of us who now feel outraged by news from the US.

It’s three years since Donald Trump suggested there should be “some form of punishment” for women seeking abortions. As Stephanie Boland wrote at the time, the response of UK citizens was “a bit rich” given the Northern Irish situation.

But back then, Trump was not president; indeed, to many of us the prospect still seemed unimaginable. How could someone like him follow Obama? That just wasn’t how history progressed, therefore, whatever he said, US women were probably safe.

And yet here we are, and if this week’s news reminds us of anything, it’s that our understanding of progress itself can be deeply flawed. Those who us who believe in female bodily autonomy might well consider ourselves to be on the right side of history; history doesn’t care. Roe vs Wade hasn’t secured inviolable rights for US women; the 1967 Abortion Act didn’t stop the termination of a pregnancy remaining a criminal act throughout the UK, and never extended its reach to Northern Ireland at all.

It is obscene that women and girls in Northern Ireland cannot access reproductive care on their doorstep; obscene that they must endure psychological trauma, financial hardship, stigma and isolation just to be in with a chance of exerting basic bodily autonomy. On a smaller scale, it’s obscene that women across the UK still require the signature of two medical professionals before being able to access a termination (presumably on the off chance that theirs is the first ever pregnancy that would not cause permanent injury to their physical or mental health).  

Perhaps we need photos of 25 self-satisfied, middle-aged white men to remind us of the obscenity of it all. Then again, the othering in which we indulge – they’re Republicans, Trump’s men, products of a specifically regressive, conservative culture – can distract us from the necessary parallels we need to draw. Yes, it all looks “a bit Handmaid’s Tale” but that’s just window dressing. These men’s misogyny is not uniquely dystopian; it is everywhere and it is mundane.

Every patriarchal culture finds its own way to police female bodies, yet whatever seems to be the specific driving force – religious fundamentalism, a fetishisation of the traditional family, distaste for female sexual autonomy – at root they’re the same. What we are witnessing, in all its dull mutations, is the global management of female reproduction as a resource, and with it, the dehumanisation of female people.

There is no level of cultural or political sophistication at which female bodies cease to be seen as a potential resource for exploitation. We might as well admit it, and stop carving the world up into the “don’t know any betters” (Northern Ireland) and the “crazy dystopian nightmares” (US) when it comes to understanding the ebb and flow of abortion rights. What is happening in Alabama is, and has been, and will be replicated the world over. And on one level, I don’t even think the men enabling this can’t see the harm. They just don’t care.

We might temporarily reclaim the territory that is our own bodies, but it can be conquered again. All over the world, generation after generation of women ends up fighting this same war. There are different methods of attack, lulls in hostilities, temporary truces. Always we must be on our guard. At the forefront of a battle they never chose, the women of both Northern Ireland and Alabama 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.