I was first introduced to the abortion debate in Northern Ireland in a religious education class at the age of 13. We were shown images from abortion procedures on pro-life websites, told in detail when a foetus forms fingernails, and taught, above else, that life was sacred. Afterwards, I went home and told my parents that abortion was evil, and that I would never have the procedure. Before I was old enough to imagine the circumstances in which I would need an abortion, I was taught not to want a choice in the matter.
Now, as a student in England, I’m acutely aware of just how problematic this education was. I now find it absurd that until this week I would have had to pay £900 for an abortion in a private clinic, whilst my friends based in Great Britain were guaranteed the same procedure for free. Women who reside in England, Scotland and Wales have had the right to free, safe abortions since the Abortion Act in 1967. Yet for 50 years, the only option for Northern Irish women who needed abortions was to fly to England and to go to a private clinic.
Abortion in Northern Ireland remains illegal under almost all circumstances, including fatal foetal abnormality, and rape. In the Republic of Ireland, it took the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar in 2012 for abortions to become legal in the case of fatal foetal abnormality. Savita, along with her husband, pleaded that her pregnancy be terminated as she feared that she would die from blood poisoning as doctors thought the foetus to be dead; yet despite their demands, a team of thirty medical staff denied the request as doctors had detected a foetal heartbeat. It shouldn’t take the death of another woman for Northern Ireland’s abortion policy to be revised. Nor should the issue of women’s rights in Northern Ireland be an issue reduced to another U-turn in Theresa May’s bid to cling onto power.
Following a successful campaign led by Labour’s Stella Creasy, which received cross-party support, the government have recently agreed to free abortions for Northern Irish women in England, having previously stated that it was “a matter for the NI Assembly”. However, this change only arose due to the risk of a party rebellion, leading the Liberal Democrat MP Jo Swinson to note that “women deserve better than having their rights reliant on House of Commons arithmetic” and Labour’s Yvette Cooper to accuse the government of “hiding behind the excuse of devolution.”
The reality is, whilst this change in policy has been hailed as a “landmark moment” for women’s rights in Northern Ireland, it offers little reassurance to the most vulnerable women in our society. The costs of travelling to have an abortion for Northern Irish women may be reduced, but it certainly isn’t universally affordable. The law as it stands is still an immoral one, which hits the poorest in our society the hardest, leaving working class woman facing prosecution if they can’t afford to travel to England. If I were to travel from Belfast to Liverpool now for the procedure it would cost £83 for a round trip, excluding accommodation. What’s more, even if a woman can afford these expenses, she has to fly alone, to another country, without the comfort of her family or home. While this isolated and potentially frightening experience remains the reality facing so many Northern Irish women, I find it difficult to celebrate recent developments as a break through moment for women’s rights.
The fact remains that this is an undeniably contentious topic. Last year, one student in Belfast who had no access to legal abortion bought drugs online to terminate her pregnancy – when her roommates discovered what she’d done, they reported her to the police. In court, her lawyer told the judge that if his 19 year old client lived in any other part of the UK she “wouldn’t have found herself in front of the courts”. She has since been handed a suspended sentence.
With Stormont no closer to forming an executive, it seems unlikely that the extension of the Abortion Act will come through the Assembly. On the same day that Theresa May’s government announced the change in policy, the High Court overturned an earlier ruling that NI abortion policy was incompatible with human rights. Yet there may remain hope, as in a surprising move, it invited legal submissions for the case to go to the Supreme Court.
I have every hope that the issue of abortion rights in Northern Ireland will now remain a priority for the UK, and that the politicians of Westminster will continue to stand in solidarity with Irish women until real change comes into effect. It’s only then that we’ll be able to truly celebrate a break-through in women’s rights.