Pro-choice campaigners target North’s abortion laws
Women’s rights activists confident 2019 will see North’s restrictive regime reformed
Members of the Together for Yes campaign take part in a protest march in Belfast in June. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Ashleigh Topley was devastated to learn at her 20-week scan that her baby had a fatal foetal abnormality and “would never take a breath”.
“Being denied a termination and then being forced to endure 15 weeks of willing my much-wanted daughter’s heart to stop and waiting for the pregnancy to end naturally can only be described as torture,” she says.
Currently women can have an abortion in the North when there is a risk to the mother’s life, or if there is risk to her mental or physical health that could have long-term or permanent consequences.
Pro-choice campaigners have long-standing concerns about the fact that pregnancies involving rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormalities are not circumstances in which abortions can be performed legally.
This means women had to either travel to Britain for an abortion, risk prosecution by ordering abortion pills online, end their pregnancy without medical supervision or continue to full-term.
“Before my daughter Katy’s diagnosis I had never considered the topic of abortion, but being denied a termination opened my eyes to many other reasons why someone might need an abortion,” says Topley, from Portadown, Co Armagh. “No one should ever have to endure what I did and no one should ever be forced to be continue with a pregnancy if they don’t want to.”
Abortion law in in the North dates back to the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 and the Criminal Justice Act (NI) 1945, which make abortion illegal in almost every circumstance, providing for one of the most restrictive regimes in the world.
The 1967 Abortion Act allows for terminations up to 24 weeks but was never extended to the North. Following a campaign led by UK Labour for a change in the law, the British government announced in 2017 that fees for women from the North travelling to England to undergo abortion procedures would be lifted.
However, campaigners say travelling is not a choice for many migrant women, those with caring responsibilities and those in abusive relationships, who are among the hundreds of women per year who order abortion pills online.
Kellie O’Dowd, co-chair of the Alliance for Choice, said some “women are absolutely petrified and will risk life, limb and liberty to end a pregnancy they don’t want to continue”.
“England has had laws for 50 years so they look at us like we are not wise and don’t understand why this is allowed to continue,” says O’Dowd, who has been supporting those with crisis pregnancies since she was a women’s officer at university 25 years ago.
Following last year’s Yes vote in the referendum on removing the Republic’s abortion ban, women’s rights activists are confident this will be the year when the North’s regime is reformed.
As long as a single precious unborn baby is in danger, then our work is not yet finished
An initial boost was Minister for Health Simon Harris saying in November that he wanted to find a way around the obstacles to giving women from Northern Ireland access to abortion services in the Republic free of charge.
However, Health Service Executive guidelines suggest those coming south will have to pay for the procedure but they do not go into specifics on cost. The State is paying GPs a fee of €450 to administer the abortion pill, so it is likely the cost for any paying customers will be close to that figure.
Topley says she wants to live in a “less judgmental and more compassionate society” where individuals have the freedom to choose to make decisions about what is best for them and their families.
“It is now time for NI to catch up with our neighbours in the rest of the UK and Ireland, we will not be left behind any longer.”
Repeated polls indicate a majority in the North favour abortion law reform, and, according to Franki Appleton, an advocacy adviser for Marie Stopes UK, which provides abortion services, last year was a “turning point”.
“For too long women in Northern Ireland have been treated as second-class citizens, with women and girls denied healthcare in breach of their human rights . . . Women deserve better than the law as it stands.”
In all, about 1,000 women travel from the North to Britain each year for abortions. Of these, Appleton says, about 390 travel to Marie Stopes clinics in England for treatment.
Dawn Purvis, a former Progressive Unionist Party MLA and ex-director of Marie Stopes Belfast, says much progress has been made in terms of reproductive rights but “Northern Ireland remains a Bally-go-backwards in the British Isles”.
“It may not be a priority for the government but it is for women in crisis pregnancy and campaigners. We are on the road and there is now going back now. The law has to be changed.”
It has been an eventful 12 months since the Belfast Marie Stopes clinic wound down after five years operating. The clinic, regularly picketed by anti-abortion groups, dealt with thousands of women during that time – the oldest was 52 and the youngest was a 13-year-old.
The encouragement those on the pro-choice side took from the events of last year is not shared by Bernie Smyth, the director of anti-abortion organisation Precious Life.
She described 2018 as a “tragic year” and cautioned that those opposed to terminations must not slow down.
“As long as a single precious unborn baby is in danger, then our work is not yet finished,” she said.
Timeline of abortion issues in Northern Ireland in 2018
January: The Stormont department of health reveals that 13 terminations were carried out under Northern Ireland’s strict guidelines in 2016-2017.
February: The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women finds the UK responsible for “grave”’ and “systematic” violations of women’s rights in Northern Ireland by unduly restricting their access to abortion. It recommends that Westminster move to decriminalise abortion provision across Britain too.
April: Freedom-of-information requests yield a report stating that a Stormont justice and health working group recommended a change to the North’s abortion laws to allow terminations in cases of fatal foetal abnormality. The Northern Ireland Executive, however, has been on hiatus for almost two years.
May: Following the landslide vote to repeal the Eighth Amendment of the State’s Constitution, the North’s pro-choice and anti-abortion groups write open letters to Theresa May outlining their positions.
June: Belfast woman Sarah Ewart, who travelled to Britain for an abortion after being told her baby would not survive, takes a case to the North’s High Court. Ewart sought a declaration that the North’s laws were incompatible with human rights law.
August: Minister for Health Simon Harris offers reassurances to campaigners that the Government is committed to ensuring that people from Northern Ireland will be able to access abortion services in the Republic.
September: A mother who bought her then 15-year-old daughter abortion pills online challenges a decision by the North’s Public Prosecution Service to prosecute her.
October: As the 50th anniversary of the civil rights movement in the North is marked, human rights activists raise the issue of the denial of access to abortion on par with British and Irish citizens in Scotland, England, Wales and the rest of Ireland.
December: HSE guidelines prepared for the introduction of abortion in the Republic state that women from the North will have to pay for abortions under the new service. The State is paying GPs a fee of €450 to administer the abortion pill, which is likely to be the cost for women coming from the North.