There has been a global outpouring of condemnation over the recent ruling in the US to strike down the 1973 Roe vs Wade decision to protect a woman’s right to have an abortion. This led to an immediate ban in many states, with several others expected to follow swiftly. We know that this will not stop abortion happening; it will simply stop safe abortion happening and put many women’s lives and livelihoods at risk.
The decision by the US Supreme Court was not an evidence-based judgement but a political one. This was confirmed in the words of the justices themselves. Samuel Alito, a conservative justice, wrote that “it is time to heed the Constitution and return the issue of abortion to the people’s elected representatives”, while the minority of liberal justices wrote: “The majority has overruled Roe and [Planned Parenthood vs Casey, the 1992 abortion ruling that upheld the rights established in 1973] for one and only one reason: because it has always despised them, and now it has the votes to discard them. The majority thereby substitutes a rule by judges for the rule of law.”
While that last sentence will be chilling for anyone who supports the rule of law, it is all too familiar to women in Northern Ireland. Abortion has never been made available to us.
Things began to shift in 2012 when the non-governmental organisation MSI Reproductive Choices opened a clinic in Belfast, posing an open challenge to the status quo. But the legislative change had to come from Westminster.
Northern Ireland’s political institutions are prone to much instability and in early 2017 the power-sharing government collapsed when then Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuiness resigned over a financial scandal around a botched energy scheme.
At this point, the UK government was bringing in legislation that aimed to create a more stable system. It was also under scrutiny from the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw), which concluded in 2018 that the UK had violated the rights of women in Northern Ireland by restricting their access to abortion. In a report, the committee found that “thousands of women and girls” are “subjected to grave and systematic violations of rights” through having to travel outside of the country to get a legal abortion or having to carry their pregnancy to term.
In 2019, as the Northern Ireland Executive (Formation) Bill progressed, Stella Creasy MP added an amendment that would decriminalise abortion in Northern Ireland and it passed.
This shifted Northern Ireland from one of the most restrictive regimes in the world to one of the most liberal overnight. While good news, without a proper commissioning system for abortion services, women would still struggle to access the full healthcare they needed.
In 2020, as the world went into lockdown due to Covid-19, we were told to stay at home to save lives. In England, we saw telemedicine open up and women were allowed to self-medicate for abortion at home. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has listed abortion pills such as mifepristone and misoprostol as essential medicine. But in Northern Ireland, our Health Minister did not make this service available and we continued to force women to travel to England during a pandemic.
We have entered the next round of political ping-pong with women’s lives on this issue. With a multi-party power share, agreement is rare in Northern Ireland and delivery more so. A freedom of information request by the province’s Committee on the Administration of Justice showed that the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) had blocked a commissioning paper on abortion being introduced three times. They are a staunch anti-choice party so this should come as no great surprise to anyone. We have never seen this elusive paper and have no idea what the commissioned services might look like.
In response to this stalemate, in May 2021, the province’s Human Rights Commission launched a Northern Ireland High Court challenge against the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the Stormont executive and the region’s Department of Health over the delay in commissioning abortion services. In July, Westminster issued a formal direction to Stormont’s Department of Health to set up full abortion services in Northern Ireland by no later than March 2022.
Based on the UN Cedaw report in 2018, in February of this year the High Court ruled that the Secretary of State had the legal authority to direct the establishment of abortion services.
On 3 February, the DUP First Minister resigned over the Northern Ireland Protocol. We have since had elections, a new mandate, and the DUP refusing to establish a new executive. The previous Health Minister is still in situ and has still not commissioned any abortion services.
Despite this dire politicisation of women’s lives, progress is being made. All but one of our health trusts have been offering services without direction from the Department of Health. Figures show that 161 women still had to travel to England to access services last year, but between March 2020 and June 2022 we know that 3,459 have been able to access safe, free and legal abortion services here at home.
Globally, we are seeing other draconian systems begin to modernise and recognise that women’s rights are human rights. The US has dealt a brutal blow to women and this will, of course, embolden anti-choice advocates everywhere. When we listen to the recent words of Conservative MP Danny Kruger, who has said that women do not have an “absolute right to bodily autonomy” when it comes to abortion, the UK needs to pay attention and stand firm that there will be no roll back on our hard-won rights.
Read more: My abortion showed me that women in Britain are far from free