Now is the time for a national conversation about abortion rights in Northern Ireland

by Alex Kempton, FiLiA Volunteer
June 2017

On 8th June 2017 the UK held a(nother) General Election. By 9th June the Democratic Unionist Party occupied four of the top 20 positions in Google’s Trending Searches. According to Google, hundreds of thousands of people were searching for information about the manifesto, policies and leader of a political party little known outside of Northern Ireland. It didn’t take long before social media was awash with images and quotes from existing and past MPs, Local Councillors, MLAs and the manifesto itself. To many, the DUP seemed like it had been catapulted forward in time from an era of puritanism and religious zeal. “They want creationism taught in schools” and “they believe line dancing is a sin” yelled the memes, as many laughed and mocked. What wasn’t received with so much amusement, however, were the Party’s views on LGBT Rights and access to abortion.

Many couldn’t understand how a political party which holds the view that abortion should be illegal under all circumstances could exist in the modern-day UK, let alone have been voted in and now seemingly holding the keys to government. There was speculation upon rumour about what the Conservative minority might be willing to trade for DUP support, with a fresh vote in the Commons on changes to the current abortion laws being top of the list. This produced widespread anger not only from feminist groups, but all over social media from people of all political stripes. This level of public support is fantastic, but the likelihood of such a vote occurring is, to be frank, slim. And in the event a vote does take place, it would be on reducing the number of weeks in which abortion is legal; it certainly wouldn’t lead, at this stage at least, to the introduction of restrictions such as those seen in Northern Ireland.

Which leads us to the core issue. Whilst it is always satisfying to see people of all backgrounds and alliances responding so negatively to abortion restriction, it completely bypasses the fact that this is what our Northern Ireland sisters live with every single day.

It is the 1967 Abortion Act which lays out the rights of women in England, Scotland and Wales to terminate a pregnancy in specific circumstances. This law gives women the legal right to access an abortion up to 24 weeks, if the physical or mental health of the woman is at risk, and after 24 weeks if the foetus is deemed incompatible with life. But this Act was never extended to Northern Ireland, where abortion is still governed by the 1861 Offenses Against The Person Act. That’s right; women’s right to choose in Northern Ireland is governed by a law written over 150 years ago. Combined with more recent case law, the legislation allows abortion only when the continuation of the pregnancy puts the life of the woman in danger, or poses a real and serious, long term or permanent risk to the woman’s health. In reality, though, women finding themselves at risk of permanent health risk still struggle to access legal abortions in Northern Ireland. There have been attempts in the Northern Ireland Assembly to amend this law to include the same allowances for severe foetal abnormality found in the rest of the UK, most recently in 2016. This amendment was blocked, primarily by the DUP and other Unionist parties. 

So women in Northern Ireland are forced to continue with pregnancies in the full knowledge that their child will be stillborn, or born with such significant abnormalities that they are unlikely to make it beyond a few, painful hours of life. And that is to say nothing of the trauma, both emotional and physical, that the women themselves will go through. Nor can women in Northern Ireland access abortion in the case of rape or incest. How can this be right?

In order to access abortions, over a thousand women each year travel to private clinics in England, at an average individual cost of £2000. This is because, despite paying taxes and being UK citizens, women of Northern Ireland residence are not entitled to access abortions on the NHS in the rest of the UK. Which brings us to the Supreme Court Ruling on 14th June.

The case was brought by a mother and daughter, who cannot be named, against Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Health. It centred around the argument by the women that they should be able to access NHS abortion services in England for free, as they would with other health services should they need to. Mr Hunt has accepted that he has the power to grant this right, but has refused to do so. He was supported in his decision by the judgement of the Supreme Court, who ruled that this decision was “in line with this scheme for local decision-making", adding that Mr Hunt is "entitled to afford respect to the democratic decision of the people of Northern Ireland not to fund abortion services”. 

This case highlights, yet again, the disparity of the law. Of course, we are used now to the devolved nations having legislative power in certain areas. No tuition fees in Scotland; no prescription charges in Wales; no hospital parking charges in either. These things may be an irritant, an annoyance, something for those living in England to complain and rant about. But they are nothing compared to the trauma of carrying a pregnancy to term when you know the baby won’t survive. Of being forced to continue with a pregnancy you cannot cope with. Of feeling like your only choice is illegally purchase abortion pills online, the safety of which cannot be guaranteed, and going through the procedure with no medical assistance. Of knowing if you take this option you risk life imprisonment.

The brave women involved in the current court case will now take their argument to the European Court of Human Rights. The publicity of this case, taking place alongside the deal between the Conservatives and the DUP, gives us an opportunity which we need to grab with both hands. We need to use the current focus on Northern Ireland politics to shine a light on the plight of our Northern Irish sisters.

It is time for a national conversation about the abortion law in Northern Ireland. We cannot let this chance go to waste.

The FiLiA conference  will be hosting a session on abortion rights

Supporting References:
1. Google Trends
2. Abortion is a free vote issue. The DUP are clear – they oppose a woman’s right to choose
3. Tory-DUP deal could lead to lowering abortion time limits, says senior Conservative MP
4. Abortion Act 1967
5. Abortion Policy - Challenges and Opportunities
6. Bid to ease Northern Ireland abortion laws voted down
7. Abortion Policy - Challenges and Opportunities
8. Abortion: NI women not entitled to NHS terminations in England