The law governing abortion in Northern Ireland is one of the most restrictive in Europe both in law and in practice … It also carries the harshest criminal penalty in abortion regulation in Europe – life imprisonment for the women undergoing the abortion and for anyone assisting her.
A snippet from the executive summary of an Amnesty briefing report launched this morning that looks at Northern Ireland Barriers To Accessing Abortion Services. (Belfast Bar Man mentioned the launch in his post on Tuesday.) It’s part of Amnesty’s ongoing campaign of information and discussion during the Department of Justice consultation period around legislative changes on the possible decriminalisation and legalisation of abortion in cases of “lethal foetal abnormality and sexual crime”.
Amnesty NI’s Grainne Teggart introduced the report which carries interviews with women who have first-hand experience of local abortion regulations as well as healthcare providers, women’s rights groups and academics as well as public attitude polling information. Grainne described NI’s current laws as “utterly draconian”.
Breedagh Hughes from the Royal College of Midwives outlined some of the challenges facing medical professionals who still work in the absence of the Department of Health abortion guidelines (which have so far only been issued in draft). Bleeding women who have used abortion pills procured over the internet in order to trigger miscarriage sometimes present themselves in A&E departments. Breedagh explained that if hospital staff are aware that an illegal abortion was involved they are obliged to report it to the police. Yet they are also bound to provide medical care and support for the women in their care. Breedagh also highlighted that the DOJ consultation’s focus was on structural (ie, anatomical) lethal foetal abnormalities rather than genetic ones.
Donagh Stenson from the British Pregnancy Advisory Service spoke about support for NI women travelling to GB for abortions and finished her speech with the reassurance:
We’ll take care of your women until your government does.
Dawn Purvis from Marie Stopes International highlighted that women and girls who are pregnant because of rape or incest can choose to have an abortion in England, Scotland or Wales. But “according to our Assembly, women cannot be trusted to make decisions about their own bodies” in Northern Ireland.
Speakers referred to the financial imbalance of well-off families being more able to afford the expense of travel across to England and clinic fees than families living with socioeconomic disadvantage. They also discussed stigma and stereotyping, and the need for comprehensive sexual education. There was also mention of delays in NHS referrals (both due to inefficiency and individual GPs opposed to abortion) that affected NI women’s options.
Disturbingly they described the situation where a woman or girl pregnant through incest could choose to have a self-funded abortion in England, but end up being accompanied by the PSNI who needed to collect DNA evidence from the foetus to build a case against an accused father.
Sinn Féin MLA for East Londonderry Cathal Ó hOisín spoke movingly about his wife’s decision to continue with her pregnancy after a diagnosis of anencephaly. His daughter died at birth twelve years ago.
It was only after that that I looked at what the options we would have had if we’d opted to go for an abortion. And I was absolutely horrified that had we decided such, first of all it wouldn’t have been available, second of all … we would have had to go across the water …
Cathal explained that he has canvassed on the issue within the party. Motion 122 at next weekend’s Sinn Féin ard fheis will seek to make it party policy to support the option of abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality.
There is a need for change in the law here, and a need for a change in attitudes and a need for compassion for women and for couples.
Attitudes towards abortion in Northern Ireland have changed considerably in the last 20 years. The charts below illustrate Amnesty’s figures from a previous My Body My Rights event.
Unrelated to Amnesty’s report launch, but on a related topic, the Queens Film Theatre are screening the film Vessel on Sunday 8 March to coincide with International Women’s Day. The documentary follows pro-choice rights activist Dr Rebecca Gomperts as she campaigns to provide safe abortions for women in need in countries where they have no legal alternative. Her ship offers off-shore abortions outside of the international 12-mile territorial limit.
The screening will be followed by a discussion between Dawn Purvis (Marie Stopes clinic), Emma Campbell (Alliance for Change), Dr. Katy Radford (Institute for Conflict Research) and chaired by Dr Sian Barber (QUB Film Studies).