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Abortion in Northern Ireland is still a crime

August 08th, 2016
topic:Women's rights
by:Federica Tedeschi
located in:Ireland
tags:abortion, amnesty international, human-rights, Ireland, Offences Against the Person Act 1861, World Health Organisation (WHO)

Abortion is banned in Northern Ireland, even in cases of rape or incest or where the foetus will not survive. Women face life imprisonment for accessing reproductive health services that are instead freely provided on the National Health Service (NHS) everywhere else in the UK. Medical professionals face the threat of a life sentence for involvement in abortion practices.

Only in extremely restrictive cases, when the woman’s life or health is in serious danger, is a termination allowed.

The 1967 Abortion Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom legalizes abortions by registered practitioners and regulates the free provision of such medical procedure through the NHS. A termination, which can usually be carried out during the first 24 weeks of pregnancy, covers Scotland, England and Wales. Northern Ireland is simply not on the list.

Why has this part of the UK been denied the implementation of such important human rights?

When the 1967 Act was introduced as a Private Members Bill by Lord David Steel, the Parliament of Northern Ireland was dominated by the Ulster Unionist Party, not willing to follow the example set by the rest of the United Kingdom. Even after the collapse of the parliament in 1972, leading to direct rule from Westminster, the political situation meant that successive UK governments were reluctant to bring Northern Ireland’s abortion law into line with England, Scotland and Wales.  

These events explain why the primary rule that governs abortion in Northern Ireland at present is still a Victorian-era legislation never debated in the British Parliament of its day: the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, according to which anyone carrying out a termination in the country can be jailed for life.

Today we find ourselves in a rather surreal situation as the 1861 Act dates from a time before women had the right to vote.  Existing laws which have such a tremendous impact on the well-being of women and girls must be brought into the 21st century, said a spokesperson for human rights organization Amnesty International (AI) UK in Northern Ireland.

According to the representative, it is because of the disparity in service provision that at least 1,000 women a year travel to England and Wales to access abortion services.  On top of facing stigma and stress during an already traumatic time, they cannot even access the NHS for free, despite paying the same national insurance as women in the mainland. These patients must go to private clinics instead, and more often than not they travel to foreign countries such as Holland.

The scenario becomes strenuous for those who cannot afford to travel. This amounts to an inequality and class issue as financial problems make it less viable for disenfranchised women to access abortion services beyond their borders and therefore without facing prosecution. 

“In Northern Ireland we say women who are better off go to England, women who are poor have babies”, added the AI spokesperson.

The alternative for those women who cannot afford to travel to the mainland is opting for abortion tablets bought online. The drugs approved by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to induce termination in the early stages of pregnancy, misoprostol and mifepristone, are also provided by pro-choice organisations in Northern Ireland as well as in the Republic of Ireland.

However, even this practice is considered a crime.

Does punishment stop women and girls needing terminations?  It would rather turn a difficult situation into a dangerous one, instead.

In order to celebrate women’s access to safe medical abortion, Voice for Choice has expresses its solidarity with the organizers and participants of the March for Choice held in Belfast in July to inspire more people to challenge the status quo in Northern Ireland and send a message to Westminster that women’s rights are human rights and must be respected and protected.

In April Amnesty International has called for an end to the criminalisation of women in Northern Ireland who have taken abortion pills, following two cases in a week of women accused of procuring the poison, coming before a Belfast court.

On a larger scale and while waiting for the decision of the Court of Appeal, to whom AI has put forward the case, the human rights organization has launched a petition that reads ‘Abortion is not a crime’, asking the Northern Ireland Assembly to bring existing abortion laws in line with international human rights legislation, as well as making abortion available in cases of rape, incest or severe foetal impairment.

“The petition provides an indication of how out of step politicians are with society on this issue.  We’ve had a very strong response and currently there are over 56,000 signatures which give a robust indication that people want their human rights to be respected by government and laws which are in violation of these basic rights require reform”, the spokesperson for AI said.

The move follows an historic moment in December 2015, when Belfast’s High Court ruled that Northern Ireland’s abortion law is in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights and recommended that the government finally changes the legislation.

Amnesty International expects the court to come to a decision later this year. Until then its representatives will continue campaigning for change and have already contributed to a 113-page report She is not a criminal, providing readers with a detailed explanation of the impact of Ireland’s abortion law over the decades.

From the perspective of human rights and good governance, any social policy that perpetuates an inequality should be reviewed and clarity on the existing rules should be provided by the NHS (AI spokesperson). 

In fact, the same standard of reproductive healthcare that is provided to women through the NHS in England, Wales and Scotland should be available to women in Northern Ireland.

Because abortion is a collective issue and not an individual one.

Article written by:
Federica Tedeschi
“Today we find ourselves in a rather surreal situation as the 1861 Act dates from a time before women had the right to vote."
“In Northern Ireland we say women who are better off go to England, women who are poor have babies.”
In fact, the same standard of reproductive healthcare that is provided to women through the NHS in England, Wales and Scotland should be available to women in Northern Ireland.
campaign Women across the globe face dire threats to their health, well-being, and freedom as far-right governments and conservative coalitions try to hinder free and safe access to abortion.

In many countries where the act is still considered criminal, legalisation appears to be an uphill battle. Even in places where abortion is legal, such as the U.S., the right to a safe and legal termination of pregnancies is at risk of being lost.

The International Campaign for Women’s Right to Safe Abortion is a network of 1,446 organisations, groups and individuals from 129 countries working to promote safe abortion as a woman’s right.

Please visit The Campaign’s website to access its resources and information guides, learn about its operations, submit a request for solidarity, or pledge a donation.

If people and organisations from across the globe stand united and express universal solidarity in the fight for women’s rights, the chances of securing them will become much greater. It is significantly harder to quash a tidal wave.