TW: Abortion, denial of reproductive rights

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, pregnant people in England, Wales, and Scotland are being permitted to self-manage abortions at home using approved abortion pills; an eminently sensible step to ensure their safety. Meanwhile, those in Northern Ireland are being denied equal right to the same basic healthcare provision. The regulations allowing abortions to be carried out by registered medical professionals in Northern Ireland were due to take effect on 31st March, but as of yet the promised abortion services are still to be introduced. At the same time, travel restrictions make the journey to England for an abortion, which so many people from the island of Ireland have been forced to make before, near impossible. Many pregnant people in Northern Ireland are therefore trapped in an appalling situation, their mental and physical health compromised not only by a terrifying pandemic but also by an unwanted pregnancy. There is a real danger that people in such desperate circumstances may attempt unregulated and unsafe abortions, putting themselves at great and needless risk.

The situation regarding abortion provision in Northern Ireland was grossly unfair long before COVID-19. At the end of 2015, the ban on abortion in Northern Ireland was found by the High Court in Belfast to be in breach of the European Convention of Human Rights. Despite abortion having been legalised in the rest of the UK through the 1967 Abortion Act, this huge step forwards in reproductive rights left behind Northern Ireland, where abortions remained illegal except where they were necessary for “preserving the life of the mother”, as stipulated in section 25 of the Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1965. Abortion was finally decriminalised in Northern Ireland in October 2019 by repealing sections 58 and 59 and the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. Somewhat depressingly, this occurred not because of the devolved legislature of Northern Ireland deciding to take bodily autonomy seriously, but as a result of the UK government’s intervention into the suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly after it collapsed in January 2017.

In April, after the government’s lockdown measures came into force, a Central Access Point was established by the charity Informing Choices NI to enable early medical abortion services in Northern Ireland. This allows those with pregnancies up to a gestation period of 9 weeks and 6 days to attend a local clinic to take the first abortion pill, and then take the second abortion pill at home. This is of course a welcome step; but it is not enough. Some people in vulnerable circumstances, whether that be because, for example, they have an autoimmune condition that means they cannot leave the house at all during the pandemic, or because they are trapped in a domestically abusive situation at home, may not be able to travel to a clinic to take the first pill.

Given that it is permitted for the second pill to be taken at home, the requirement to physically travel to a clinic to take the first pill under such difficult circumstances seems strange and unhelpful to say the least – especially when, as with many other medical services at the moment, discussion of the abortion procedure with a medical professional could be replaced with a phone consultation. Calls for the use of telemedicine have been rejected by the health minister for Northern Ireland, Robin Swann, and the Northern Ireland secretary, Brandon Lewis. These two men have, incredibly, insisted that travelling to England on an eight-hour journey by ferry for an abortion remains a viable option, despite the UK government’s very emphatic advice to stay at home.

Furthermore, the question remains: why is it being left to a charity to enable people in Northern Ireland to access services which constitute their basic reproductive rights? It is illustrative of a dereliction of duty by the authorities in Northern Ireland, which have been persistently reluctant to legalise abortion and introduce the necessary services. The pandemic, then, seems to make for a convenient loophole to allow further delay. How can Northern Irish politicians claim to be “pro-life” while putting people’s (of course, predominantly women’s) lives at risk, forcing them to travel during a pandemic or else carry an unwanted and in some cases medically dangerous pregnancy?

They do not value life, they value control. And it is far beyond time that women stopped being treated as political and ideological pawns. Give us back our bodies.