The 158-year-long battle for abortion rights in Northern Ireland

This year, as with years gone by, International Women’s Day is a chance for women in Northern Ireland to remind the world that reproductive rights are still not a given in all parts of the UK.

Women in Northern Ireland have severely limited access to abortion compared with the rest of the UK (Credit: Rachel Lee)

A lot has changed for women in the United Kingdom in the century since International Women’s Day was first established. The 20th century saw strides made in voting rights, access to contraception and equality in the workplace. For a contemporary issue, the official theme of International Women’s Day 2019 is “balance” – balance across boardrooms, media coverage, sports, and other less-than-progressive sections of society.

But for women in Northern Ireland, the most pressing issue of today is more fundamental – and one that has its roots all the way back in 1861.

It was in that year that the law governing access to abortion in Northern Ireland was passed and remarkably it still stands today, ostensibly unamended, 158 years later.

That’s why for many activists and human rights organisations the current battle over reproductive rights is what International Women’s Day (IWD) 2019 is all about.

“In Northern Ireland, we can’t talk about any other area feminism until people have the right to control their own bodies,” says Emma Campbell of Alliance For Choice, the largest pro-choice campaign group in Northern Ireland.

“The impact that has on the rest of your life – it’s economic, it’s mental health, it’s physical health, it’s about your family life and your job prospects. It kind of covers everything.”

These sentiments are shared by other activists who want to place the focus of IWD on reproductive rights.

“Whilst it’s fine to celebrate the gains made by women in the last 100 years, IWD has to be a protest against the massive oppression women still face in society today,” says Cerys Falvey, of the campaign group ROSA, a socialist party affiliated women’s group.

Northern Ireland is unique in Western Europe for having the tightest controls over abortion, behind even the Republic of Ireland which voted in favour of legalising abortion during the “Repeal the Eighth” campaign of May 2018.

The 1967 Abortion Act that governs access to abortions in the rest of the UK was never extended to Northern Ireland. Instead, there’s only the Offences Against the Person Act, which makes it illegal for any woman to cause herself to have an abortion, even in cases of rape or incest.

Punishment for violating the 1861 Act can include life imprisonment. This is prompting many campaigners, including the Labour MP Stella Creasy, to point out that it is theoretically possible in Northern Ireland for a rape victim who has an abortion to be given a harsher sentence than her rapist.

This has lead to a situation where women have to choose between having an abortion illegally, most commonly by taking pills bought online, or travelling to Scotland, England or Wales to seek out safe, legal abortions.

According to Amnesty International, an average of 28 women a week make the journey to mainland UK in order to terminate their pregnancies.

This statistic was used by campaigners in late February, when 28 women, including actors from the popular BBC series “Derry Girls”, delivered suitcases filled with petitions to Westminster calling for the relaxing of Northern Irish abortion laws.

Actors from the hit TV series “Derry Girls” were among the women who delivered Amnesty International’s petition to Westminster in February (Credit: Amnesty International)

“28 women shouldn’t be travelling to the rest of the UK a week. We really need people in England, Scotland and Wales to put pressure on their MPs because our MPs in parliament, half of them don’t sit and the other half are the DUP who don’t properly represent the wishes of even their own voters” Campbell says.

Northern Ireland has been without a functioning parliament for over two years, which some people say prevents any hope of reform as health is a devolved issue.

But in June 2018 the UK Supreme Court ruled that access to abortion for women was not only a health matter but a human rights matter as well, which would make Westminster responsible.

The UK’s Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Karen Bradley, who has been facing calls to resign all week has contradicted this verdict, however, and there is no sign yet that Theresa May’s government will tackle the issue. To many critics, this appears to be down to the Prime Minister’s need for the support of the anti-abortion Democratic Unionist Party to get through the Brexit process.

“Until the DUP formed an unholy coalition with the Tories many people in the rest of the UK didn’t even know who they were and how much they’re holding us back,” says Campbell.

“And honestly, I think if the Tories didn’t need the DUP for Brexit at the moment, then we probably already have had extension of the rights to Northern Ireland.”

It seems unlikely, given how desperately Theresa May needs the DUP’s support at the moment, that Westminster will legislate for the changes they are obliged to by the Supreme Court.

ROSA “Time 4 Equality” campaign makes a list of five demands including access to abortion for women in Northern Ireland (Credit: ROSA)

Groups like ROSA look to the tradition of protest action in helping bring about change. International Women’s Day itself was brought on 110 years ago by mass demonstration and socialist campaigns.

“It would be a mistake to think we will be granted bodily autonomy from the goodness of politicians hearts… but with the right kind of campaign I’m confident (these changes) could happen quite quickly,” Falvey says.

“But I’m not one for making predictions.”

Alliance For Change’s “I’m a Life” campaign has been launched in time for International Women’s Day 2019. 

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