On Thursday 7 April, hundreds of people gathered outside the offices of the Public Prosecution Service to protest the ongoing criminalisation of women who perform their own abortion. Carrying banners and shouting chants, these protesters were declaring that women, and other people who can get pregnant, are the only ones who should decide what to do with their own bodies. Protesters were addressed by Emma Campbell of Alliance for choice, who organised the protest along with the Belfast Feminist Network.
Currently abortion is only permitted in Northern Ireland in very limited circumstances. The 1967 Abortion Act was never extended here, largely due to the perceived disruptive effect it may have had on various peace negotiations. This means our current law is the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, a law from before the lightbulb was invented, before women won the right to vote. The 1861 Act only allows for abortions to be performed where there is a serious long term or permanent risk to the life or health of the pregnant person. I don’t go in for the deserving or undeserving hierarchy of people who need an abortion, but even those in the most distressing circumstances such as a pregnancy resulting from rape, or where there is a fatal foetal abnormality, cannot access abortion here. The penalty for anyone either performing their own abortion, or helping someone to, is a maximum of ‘life in penal servitude’. Remember a few weeks ago when Trump suggested women who have abortions should be criminalised, and everyone was outraged? Well, it’s already happening in Northern Ireland! (It can happen in the Republic of Ireland too but that’s probably another blog!)
On the day the Assembly dissolved before the election, the long awaited guidelines were published. While an improvement on the previous draft – for example they had lost the emotive terms of unborn child and mother – they still don’t give a great deal of clarity for medical practitioners. Hopefully they will reassure them how to operate within the law. Interestingly the new guidelines have a whole section on abortion pills bought on the internet. The government knows people are using these pills in their dozens, and are essentially telling doctors to operate a ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ policy.
These pills are available to buy with medical support from websites such as Women on Web and Women Help Women. These sites supply the same pills that people are prescribed in GB, the same pills used when someone has an incomplete miscarriage here, and the same pills the World Health Organisation have put on their essential medicines list.
The protest was called following the sentencing of a woman on Monday 4 April. This woman, whose identity is protected, was charged with procuring her own miscarriage. She pled guilty and received a three month prison sentence, suspended for two years. The Judge noted that this was first case he was aware of enforcing this section of the 1861 Act. Amnesty have spoken out against the sentencing meanwhile Precious Life,, an anti-choice group are calling for the sentence to be reviewed as it is too lenient. It seems they want the maximum sentence allowed by the 1861 Act, which is life in prison!
This woman had tried to raise the money to travel to England, where she could have had a legal abortion. She wasn’t able to raise the funds. She ordered pills on the internet and took them at home by herself. The same pills she would have been prescribed on the NHS if she had been English, were bought illegally because she was in Belfast. Her housemates reported her to the police. They have been doing the media round this week and have been consistent in their view that it wasn’t so much that she had the illegal abortion, it was that she was ‘blasé’ about it and did not show enough remorse to satisfy them. Their comments suggest that had she shown the sack cloth and ashes level of remorse that they wanted, they would have left her too it. This wasn’t so much as about policing her body for the housemates, but about policing her emotions.
This woman should never have been before the courts, because she should have had access to a free safe legal abortion locally.
There is another woman awaiting trial for allegedly obtaining the abortion pills for her daughter, the hearing has been adjourned until the 27 April, and there are rumours of further prosecutions still to come to trial. The thing is, over 200 activists from Alliance for Choice have confessed to either taking the pills themselves or helping someone else to. They have distributed press releases with contact details, given television and radio interviews, even stood outside police stations confessing their ‘crime’ – not one has been approached.
If the fact that women, and other people who can get pregnant, are being criminalised for taking control of their body has you enraged, get active! There is an election coming up, ask your candidates, do they support abortion law reform? Will they support a free vote in the next assembly? Do they trust women? Get involved with Alliance for Choice who are campaigning for the extension of the 1967 Act; you can find them on facebook and twitter.
The woman who was sentenced could not afford to travel to England for a legal abortion. In a recent judicial review it was held that Northern Ireland was not compliant with minimum international human rights standards. In his judgement Mr Justice Horner said that there was ‘one law for the rich, and one law for the poor’. Not only do people have to pay to travel to GB, they also have to pay for private treatment as there is no NHS referral pathway. Until the law gets changed you can help people travel for legal abortions by donating to the Abortion Support Network.
If you are in Northern Ireland, Ireland, or the Isle of Man and need an abortion please contact the Abortion Support Network for advice and practical support to access a legal abortion.
Danielle Roberts is an activist with Belfast Feminist Network and is currently working on her PhD on barriers to formal politics experienced by Protestant, Unionist and Loyalist Women.