by Olivia Wright 

Abortion remains illegal in Northern Ireland under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act. 

Northern Ireland has the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe. Since the historic referendum that took place in the Republic of Ireland on May 25th - the result of which was a landslide victory for those in favour to repeal the Eighth Amendment – is now the only part of the UK that does not allow abortion except in the narrowest of circumstances; forcing women to carry babies to term even in cases of rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormality. It is a remnant of the 1950s. 

Imagine this for one minute: you were born in Northern Ireland and you find yourself pregnant, unwilling or unable to care for another human being for any reason (as, in 2018, they are all valid.) Perhaps you were raped, perhaps your child won’t survive the pregnancy. Perhaps you simply cannot offer a decent quality of life. Northern Irish women are denied the legal right to their bodies. As a Northern Irish woman, you would effectively have to ask your own nation to provide you with a service which would see you imprisoned if you seek it in your own country. 

The United Nations ruled in 2016 that restrictive abortion laws are a grave violation of human rights and is one of the most ‘damaging ways of instrumentalising women’s bodies.’ The Northern Irish government have ignored this ruling and continue to refuse to grant their citizens safe reproductive services. The UK government also continues to ignore its responsibility to ensure that the laws in all its territories comply with international human rights laws. 

But does this announcement make any difference?

As was the case in England prior to the 1967 Abortion Act, there is a distinct inequality in relation to abortion. Only the more affluent women can travel. For the young, disabled and those unable afford travel, they are resorting to buying illegal, but World Health Organisation verified, pills online.   

The procurement of abortion outside an NHS facility is illegal everywhere in the UK under the 1967 Act, meaning the women accessing abortion medication are risking prison - not to mention forgoing sufficient aftercare.

A recent case in 2016 saw a 21-year-old woman being handed a three-month suspended sentence after her flatmates reported her to the police for taking the abortion pill. The case demonstrates not only the willingness prosecute women for abortion offences, but the readiness of friends to call the police. 

A report published by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service last year found that over 5,000 women requested the abortion pill online. The numbers of women travelling for a termination annually has also decreased from about 1,000 to around 800. If we couple that with the 16 abortions performed in Northern Ireland in 2016, it’s an obvious truth that the abortion rate isn’t decreasing, but women are accessing these pills online and having abortions without medical advice or assistance. 

Mara Clarke, director of The Abortion Support Network, a charity which provides financial assistance and accommodation to women travelling from Northern Ireland, as well as information on reputable abortion pill providers, doesn’t think Westminster has done enough;

“The UK government saying they will fund abortions in England is just another plaster. You shouldn’t have to get on a plane to get medical care.

The government need to realise that they aren’t stopping abortion. They are stopping abortion for poor people.

They are then arresting people for taking illegal but safe abortion pills, so what they are saying is, ‘drink bleach.’

And women are. A woman rang me and said, ‘I’m trying to figure out how to crash my car to have a miscarriage but not die.’”

Jill McManus, a medical student at Queen’s University Belfast and activist Alliance for Choice, says women are in an impossible situation; they either risk criminalisation for buying abortion pills, or spend their savings on travelling to England. 

“There is a real stigma around even discussing abortion publicly.

Many women are forced into silence because they feel they're going to be judged if they speak about it, when it's such a common healthcare procedure.

“At Alliance for Choice, we run the #TrustWomen campaign, which is all about reframing the discussion around abortion to make it a healthcare and human rights issue.

We campaign simply for safe, free and legal abortions.”

Abortion has been used as a political bargain in recent years; in 2008, for example, there was a move to add a clause to the Human Embryology Bill that would extend the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland. But, Gordon Brown wanted to increase the detention time for those who were believed to be terrorists. 

Through a backroom political manoeuvre, he agreed with the Democratic Unionist Party that abortion wouldn’t be extended to Northern Ireland if they supported their move to detain people without charge. 

So, what makes Northern Ireland ‘different’ from the rest of the UK? 

Northern Ireland is regarded as the most religious part of the UK. The 2011 Census reported 82 percent of residents described themselves as Christian, compared with England’s 59 percent. 

Dr Claire Pierson, Lecturer in Politics at the University of Liverpool, but originally from Belfast, has called abortion ‘the one issue which unites religion in Northern Ireland.’ 

“Members of the DUP are openly members of the Evangelical Protestant churches so their political debate and rhetoric is guided by religious belief.

The Catholic Social Democratic and Labour Party openly calls itself a prolife party and they use faith based approaches to politics.

There is influence from the church and it does guide politicians on moral politics.”

In 2016, the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey presented the public with scenarios relating to abortion and they were asked if they thought abortion should be legal according to the situation. 

83 percent believed abortion should be legal in cases where a serious health condition means the woman will die if she continues the pregnancy. While 78 percent believed it should be legal in cases of rape and incest. 

Yet, proposals to legalise abortion in cases of foetal abnormality, and in cases of rape and incest were defeated by 59-40 and 64-30 respectively in the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2016. The refusal of Northern Irish politicians to support abortions in some of the most desperate situations makes it hard to see how Northern Ireland is going to see any real change.

But, the DUP - through their ‘money-deal’ with the Conservative government - have inadvertently made this a bigger problem. This will remain an issue for the UK and Northern Irish governments. We must keep the women of Northern Ireland in our minds as we celebrate the ROI’s victory – there is so much more to be done.

You can help by donating to Abortion Support Network, Alliance for Choice and being vocal.

Follow Olivia on Twitter: @OliviaWright_