“Sent to the mainland”: how Northern Irish women suffer under restrictive abortion laws

“Our bodies are governed by a piece of law which pre-dates the lightbulb.”

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Anyone who spent their formative years in Northern Ireland – myself included – will have heard about those “sent to the mainland”. The schoolgirls who made these trips not only had to make incredibly difficult decisions, but could also expect to be stigmatised for having done so. And it wasn’t just simply the procedure. Back in the days before cheap flights, it was a ferry journey to get there, and in the event that the pregnancy became apparent later on, even this flimsy veneer of choice was often removed entirely. 

This month, despite the opposition of the Catholic Church, Ireland voted overwhelmingly to repeal the eighth amendment, which paves the way for more progressive legislation on abortion. The door has closed on a system that valued the rights of a foetus over the rights of the woman carrying it.

But close neighbours in Northern Ireland are still subject to restrictive laws – and heavy penalties – should they wish to have autonomy over their own bodies.

The near-total ban on abortion in Northern Ireland – where the 1967 Abortion Act was never brought into law – means that women can face up to life in prison if they are found to have procured pills or services to abort.

Grainne Teggart, Northern Ireland Campaigns Manager of Amnesty UK says now is the time for change: “All eyes are on the UK government. They now have a decision to make – they can either remain complicit in the harm and suffering caused by our restrictive laws or they can legislate for much-needed and overdue reform which must include the decriminalisation of abortion.

She tells me: “Women in Northern Ireland now find themselves on the absurd position where they may soon board a train to the south of Ireland or planes to the rest of the UK for this healthcare service – but still can’t access free, safe and legal abortions in Northern Ireland.

“The UK government cannot continue to sustain this inequity. We are not second-class citizens and we will not accept being left behind in this tiny corner of the UK and Ireland having our bodies governed by a piece of law which pre-dates the lightbulb.”

According to Teggart, the reaction from the six counties north of the border has shown that they’re ready for change – and now they have campaigners fresh from the successful Repeal fight to join them.

The online petition Amnesty is running has reached 32,200 signatures, with Teggart crediting “solidarity from our Southern sisters”. She adds: “We expect to be working with groups who campaigned in the referendum to work alongside us for Westminster to deliver human rights-compliant law.”

Campaigners to repeal the eighth amendment included the Together for Yes coalition, which united more than 70 organisations, including The National Women's Council of Ireland, The Coalition To Repeal The 8th Amendment, The Abortion Rights Campaign and The Irish Family Planning Association. Other groups included Abortion Rights IE and Alliance for Choice, both of which have already declared their support for legislation to change in Northern Ireland next.

The tragedy for Northern Ireland is that the health services needed are freely provided on the NHS everywhere else in the UK. But abortions are currently only legal in Northern Ireland if the physical or mental health of the mother is seriously or permanently at risk.

Teggart says: “Women can now take one abortion pill at home in Scotland and Wales and we expect that England will follow suit. At the same time, women in Northern Ireland are being prosecuted.”

A supreme court judgment considering whether abortion law in Northern Ireland is incompatible with international human rights is expected later this year, while the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women said “the situation in Northern Ireland constitutes violence against women that may amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment”.

Sarah Ewart is one strong voice in the campaign for Northern Ireland to modernise its laws. In 2013, she made the trip to England after she was told that her unborn child would not survive outside the womb – not grounds for abortion in Northern Ireland.

She told BBC Northern Ireland that her experience was “devastating”, adding: “We had no information at the time, the consultants and midwives here wanted to help but they couldn't give us any information. Literally, Yellow Pages was what we went through and family planning popped up and that's where we went to make the appointment."

According to Teggart, such real-life stories were vital to the successful Repeal campaign: “What came through loud and clear was the voices of women who had been negatively impacted and harmed by the constitution there, and by equal rights being given to a foetus as to a woman.

When it comes to progress on reproductive law, the dominant party in Northern Ireland – the unionist DUP – is defiantly anti-abortion. Its ten MPs in Westminster hold the balance of power over Theresa May’s Tory government.

Already, pressure is mounting to change the law. Equalities minister Penny Mordaunt said on Saturday that the Irish result was a “hopeful one for Northern Ireland”, while around 160 MPs have backed a letter, championed by Labour’s Stella Creasy, demanding that the government relax the abortion rules in Northern Ireland.

However, with the collapse of the Northern Ireland power-sharing government in January 2017, there is no way such massive changes in legislation will be decided any time soon.

DUP leader Arlene Foster made her feelings clear with this statement: “The legislation governing abortion is a devolved matter and it is for the Northern Ireland assembly to debate and decide such issues.

“Some of those who wish to circumvent the assembly’s role may be doing so simply to avoid its decision. The DUP is a pro-life party and we will continue to articulate our position.”

As the second largest party in Northern Ireland, the republican Sinn Féin is also under scrutiny. It is far from united in its stance, despite a vote at last year’s ard fheis (party conference) to liberalise the party’s policy both north and south of the border. In the Republic of Ireland, it suspended one TD – Carol Nolan – for opposing the referendum.

Anti-abortion viewpoints like these, though, have been dwarfed by the grassroots support evident for the Repeal movement, and one campaigner says she can definitely see it spreading to the North.

Siobhan Donohue spoke out about her own abortion experience like many other women in the “Yes” camp, and says the personal became the political throughout the campaign.

“As soon as I started telling my story in person was horrified by what I had to go through, and the obvious traumatic effects that it had. On a one-to-one basis, people got it.”

Siobhan’s story is a difficult one to hear. When, at the age of 40, she found out that her unborn son had anencephaly – in which an infant’s head never fully forms – at 20 weeks into the pregnancy, she arranged to go to Liverpool to get a termination.

The Dublin-based GP says that the stories so many women told challenged longheld beliefs formed by religious teachings and feelings of shame. 

“One of the next steps on the to-do list is to help the women of Northern Ireland. It’s even worse than here because we had the excuse here of having a constitutional ban and they didn’t have that.

“It will need a different strategy, but the will of the people is there. There is strong support from the people of the North, 60 per cent or so, so it’s time to work it out. It should give them hope that we’ve been able to achieve this.”

This week, a bus with members of Rosa – Reproductive Rights, Against Oppression, Sexism and Austerity – on board is touring Northern Ireland to hand out abortion pills. It’s an illegal act that could see the women being prosecuted for their stunt.

In the meantime, a country that remains restricted by some of the most suffocating abortion laws in the world woke up this week to find that it’s surrounded by social change.

Theresa May says it is an issue for Northern Ireland to decide, but it’s looking increasingly like her feminism is lip service, and she’s content to leave Northern Ireland’s women in the past.

Kirstie McCrum is a freelance journalist. Follow her @kirstiemccrum.