Meet The Women Fighting Northern Ireland’s Abortion Ban
In 1967, the Abortion Act made it lawful for any British woman to have an abortion, so long as it was administered by a registered practitioner and two doctors agree an abortion would cause less damage to a woman’s physical or mental health than continuing with the pregnancy. It was also to be freely available to any UK citizen via the National Health Service (NHS).
The law still stands, and will be celebrated as a huge liberator for women’s rights on its 50th anniversary in 2017. However, in Northern Ireland, abortion remains illegal. The Abortion Act was never ratified there, and recent devolution of power means Northern Ireland has ultimate control over its healthcare provisions. This means that, if women are wealthy enough, they can travel to the UK to get an abortion. However, they must also pay for the abortion, despite it being provided to mainland British women free of charge. Recently, a 21-year-old woman was convicted under the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 and given a three-month suspended sentence for one year after taking misoprostol, a drug she’d bought online and used to induce a miscarriage. Her barrister pointed out that, had she lived anywhere else in the UK, she “would not have found herself before the courts.”
Once again, campaigners and advocates are calling on Northern Ireland to change its laws, to give women in the UK equal human rights as promised and enshrined in UK law. MAKERS speaks to them to find out why they do what they do and what their hopes for the future are.
Ann Rossiter, part of the Abortion Support Network and live art group Ireland Making England the Legal Destination for Abortion, wrote the book “Ireland’s Hidden Diaspora”
“I had a backstreet abortion in England before the Abortion Act and anything you see in Vera Drake is mild. The police were called to the hospital, St. Mary’s, and they weren’t interested in me, but the abortionists. Now, me and many other women help out with the money, transport and accommodation for abortion seekers. We are not medically trained nor social workers or counsellors, but we do our best to help and find out the answers to so many complicated questions. Speaking abortion seekers’ names has always been a huge problem, it shouldn’t be so that women are so silenced not only by the state but their environment. My worry is that maybe the Northern Irish government will have to allow for abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, but then they’d wash their hands of it.”
Wendy Savage, retired obstetrician and gynaecologist, press officer for Doctors for Women’s Choice
“As part of my training, I worked in Nigeria and Kenya and saw women die through illegal or unsafe abortion. When I returned, the Abortion Act had passed, but it was only years later that I realised it wasn’t available in Northern Ireland. It’s unjust; women there pay their taxes like the rest of us, why shouldn’t they have the full range of services we have? There are warring parties in that part of the country but what underlies it all is their attitude to abortion and women. One of the successes of the anti-abortion campaign is making everybody think we in mainland UK have abortion on demand - but a woman has to convince two doctors that she meets the criteria for having an abortion. Many people don’t realise that. So I’m part of a group of doctors who believe that a woman has the right to choose.”
Baroness Jenny Tonge, member of the Faculty of Family Planning and Reproductive Health Care of the Royal College of Gynaecologists
“For over 32 years I was a doctor working in women’s services. I’ve been picketed outside my clinics for daring to counsel people who want abortions. I’ve not had an abortion because I’ve never needed one but it is my duty as a doctor to empathise with the patient. And so much emphasis is put on ‘the baby’, fair enough. But no emphasis at all is put on the fact that to have that baby, the woman has to be pregnant for nine months; it’s a life and body changing experience. I’ve also known of women from some communities who faced death for being pregnant. Northern Ireland makes such a fuss about belonging to the United Kingdom, yet it will not accept this one law which is about human rights and women’s rights. They should respect the rules of our club. However, even here, we have to fight rearguard action all the time against people trying to get the Abortion Act repealed. And abortion is getting more and more difficult to obtain in England. Hopefully we’ll reach the point where women will be able to get misoprostol on the net and if they miss a period, they can take some of that to get it going again. It’s about time women were freed up to do this at home and take charge of themselves, instead of having to hand their bodies over to doctors all the time.”
Photo Credit: Flying Colours/Getty Images
Goretti Horgan, activist and lecturer in social policy at the University of Ulster, member of Alliance for Choice
“In my twenties, I knew somebody whose sister-in-law died from a backstreet abortion. I realised that abortion would be illegal or legal but either way women were going to have them. When Tony Blair’s Labour had a policy position on extending the Abortion Act to Northern Ireland, we set up the Alliance for Choice. We expected our timeline to last until 1999, so we felt stupid to be so naive to think the party would make that policy happen. And the Troubles pushed so much down the agenda. But now, so much has happened in the past few years, you can see the possibility of abortion becoming available quite soon. Yet welfare cuts now put women in an odd position, as they’re not allowed abortions but they’re not allowed benefits for their third child. I’ve helped women get to mainland England for abortions and bought countless packets of misoprostal for women over the years. If it means there are so fewer women being forced to take instruments to themselves, I’m happy to do that. The police know where I am if they want to arrest me.”
Photo Credit: Paul Faith/AFP/Getty Images
Laura Russell, policy lead at the Family Planning Association, who provide information, training and advocacy services and run non-directive pregnancy choices counselling services in Northern Ireland as well
“Current law is over 150 years old and fails to protect women’s reproductive health. Women are consistently denied the chance to make choices about their own bodies and are left unable to access important services safely and close to home.”
A recent judgment handed down in the High Court in Belfast found abortion legislation in Northern Ireland breaches Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. As Justice Horner himself said, the ‘law has made it much more difficult for those with limited means to travel to England,’ which ‘smacks of one law for the rich and one law for the poor.’
The UN human rights committee’s recent ruling that the law in Ireland contravenes human rights is an important reminder that refusal to allow women to access vital healthcare services is cruel and degrading. The UK Government needs to take note and work with the Northern Ireland Executive to address the fact that the human rights of women in Northern Ireland are also being breached.
Photo Credit: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images