In modern society, we’re used to the idea that the letter of the law and its execution are two different things. Since 1839, it has been illegal to shake out a doormat on a UK street after 8am. It is, for some reason, illegal to handle a salmon under “suspicious circumstances”. Euthanasia, streaming pirated videos and smoking marijuana are each, in their way, illegal in the UK, but offenders are rarely prosecuted.
This status quo perhaps explains why we reacted with shock and horror to the news that in Northern Ireland, a woman has been handed a two month suspended sentence for ordering abortion pills online after her flatmates reported her to the police. Unlike in the rest of the UK, abortions are illegal in Northern Ireland unless the life or mental health of the mother is in danger. The court’s adherence to this law earned the case headlines all over the world.
Perhaps it isn’t surprising that we are surprised. Women in Ireland, as in many abortion-unfriendly countries that lie near more liberal ones, obtain abortions all the time – they order drugs online and don’t get caught, or else they fly to England or another country where the procedure is not restricted. In 2001, the charity Women on Waves visited Ireland from the Netherlands to distibute abortion pills from the deck of a ship.
This use of loopholes (loopholes often heavily laced with privilege, and the price of an air flight abroad, and flatmates who won’t report you when they find the remains of your abortion in a bin) has lulled us until we are shocked that a woman was convicted under a law specifically designed to restrict her access to choice.
Donald Trump remarked last week that if abortions were recriminalised in the US, there should be “some sort of punishment” for women who obtain them. The peculiar thing about the resultant outrage was that it did not focus on the root problem – that many people in the US, including Trump, want to criminalise a woman for choosing what to do with her body – but the fact that he would take this law to its logical conclusion. Why are we too scared to directly legislate in favour of women, rather than protect the loopholes that sometimes allow them rights over their body? Is a situation where abortion is criminalised such that it can’t be provided safely, yet women can somehow escape direct punishment, really the best we can hope for?
It is a trope within liberal thinking (and, perhaps, all political thinking) to assume that once everyone you know is convinced of a truth, that everyone else is too. As a result, we begin to think that top-down legislation isn’t necessary. This is perhaps why we must be reminded, over and over again, that the anti-abortion lobby isn’t “over there” – it’s in Ireland, a flight or a ferry way. And it’s in the Commons, where challenges to the abortion laws come regularly, in various guises, but always to the same end: to restrict access. Women in Scotland, England and Wales already need the signatures of two doctors before they can apply for the procedure.
We should have learned by now that thinking something that most of our friends think, and assuming others agree, is not enough. When we hear that rape within marriage only became illegal in 1991, we tut at the slow, antiquated legal system, rather than acknowledging the reality: that until the rights we agree on are encoded from the top down, they may as well not exist. We don’t want to realise that in their heart of hearts, many men believe they have a right to extract sex from their wives. It’s far easier to argue over specifics with those you broadly agree with than it is to face the fact that large chunks of the world do not, and would happily wrench your freedoms from you given half the chance.
Women’s refuges – currently subject to a back and forth debate within the feminist community over who precisely can use them – currently face existential threats in the form of government cuts and a lack of societal support. That’s not to say that both debates shouldn’t go on concurrently, but that we can’t afford to be in any way optimistic about society’s views on women’s services and women’s rights. Any help given to women appears to some as an attack on male privilege, and as a result, we must keep fighting those who want that privilege back even after it seems like the rights have been won.
Those attacking women’s services are now often switched on enough to claim they do agree with your principles, even as they take away the concrete expressions of them. George Osborne was charitable enough to agree that domestic violence shelters need more funding, before diverting only the taxes women pay on tampons, because women should pay for male violence, I assume. Jenny Smith, who was one of the first women to shelter from her husband in a woman’s sanctuary in the 1970s, told the Guardian that “women are suffering more than ever”.
The sad reality is that rights for women we have fought for don’t just stay put once we take our eyes off them. We can’t afford to accept loopholes as “good enough” while we let the law lag behind. In journalism, it’s a truism that “dog bites man” is not a story, but “man bites dog”, the exception, is. In the case of abortion rights, we have allowed outselves to believe that the exceptions – the women with plane tickets and relatives and friends who won’t shop them to the police – are the rule, and we report on the convictions, or apparent exceptions, as though each comes as a surprise.
Yet conviction for abortion in Ireland is, quite literally, the rule, even if it is still relatively rare. It’s not “this one crazy time a woman was convicted for seeking an abortion” – it’s a set of laws more common than not around the world that systematically degrade a woman’s rights over her own body.