In June 2015 a Belfast woman appeared at Belfast Magistrates’ Court facing charges of procuring a poison or other noxious substance. The defendant obtained two different medications, Misoprostol and Mifepristone, which are common drugs used to induce abortions.
The World Health Organization added these drugs to their “Essential Medicines List” in 2005, a list defined by the WHO as “those drugs that satisfy the health care needs of the majority of the population; they should therefore be available at all times in adequate amounts and in appropriate dosage forms, at a price the community can afford.”
In Northern Ireland however, these drugs are not readily available. The woman in question obtained these unlawfully, most likely from a website such as Women on Web or Women Help Women. These are sites set up to aid women in having access to contraception and abortion materials where for whatever reason, be it due to local laws, family pressure or perhaps in an abusive and dangerous relationship, women are unable to access these treatments in an orthodox way.
The British Pregnancy Advisory Service endorses Alliance For Choice as a local champion group for women seeking information about pregnancies where they are unable to access the proper and required information. Alliance For Choice are currently campaigning for the Belfast woman who has been bailed pending proceedings, Alliance for Choice campaigner Sarah Wright said:
The aim is to highlight he hypocrisy of the law, they’ve targeted one isolated woman when they know fine rightly, we had an open letter in 2013 that said that over 100 people had supplied or taken these early medical abortion pills.
Its unacceptable to arrest one single woman. Alliance for choice and their activists have been facilitating and helping women to access abortion for years.
The debate on pro-choice/anti-choice is a polarizing one, especially in Northern Ireland where legislators are often decidedly non-secular.
I went along to Belfast’s Cornmarket on Saturday 18th June where Alliance for Choice were collecting signatures for their campaign, #dropthecharges. Interestingly, there was an “pro-life/anti-choice” stand set up opposite the Alliance for Choice group…
The images are quite graphic and raised more than a few disgusted looks from passersby on a busy Saturday afternoon. I asked one member of the public who stopped to take a photo of the pictures above what they thought of it, they didn’t wish to be named but said “It’s just not appropriate to be showing pictures like that when there are kids walking about.”
The stand was manned by 3 girls who at my guess, were no older than 18/19, I asked if I could ask them some questions about their campaign, I was told somewhat hesitantly that:
We’re only here for another half an hour, we’ll be packing up soon and I’m not actually in charge, the girl that would speak isn’t here right now so I don’t know if I can speak
I said I was writing an article about the issue and had spoken with Alliance for Choice across the street, that surely the point of them being here was to spread their message, my first question was “what is your opinion of the court case where a woman has been charged for obtaining pills to facilitate her daughter’s abortion.”
She then called someone on her phone and told me she had decided not to comment. So I tried…
Back to Alliance for Choice who were more than happy to speak to me about their campaign, I spoke with campaigner and member Sarah Wright. The interview AudioBoo is available here
Sarah: Alliance for choice works to extend the 1967 act to Northern Ireland, to allow women to have reproductive health care at home.
Kris: So what does that mean in real terms, whats the current law in NI?
S: The current law dates from 1861, the offenses against the person act.it essentially means that unless there is serious and long term risks to a woman’s physical or mental health, she cannot obtain an abortion in Northern Ireland. Last year, I think I’m right in saying, there were 23 abortions here, whereas thousands of women travel to great Britain, thousands more order pills online and have an abortion at home. It’s unacceptable we need a law here that allows women the right to choose and have bodily autonomy.
K: One of the reasons this has been in the news recently is because a woman has been charged with obtaining and supplying pills that induce an abortion for her daughter. I know your organisation campaigned this week in Londonderry outside a police station, inviting the police to arrest people who signed an open letter saying they did the same, you’re doing one in Belfast next week. What’s the aim of this? Is the aim that you want you all to be arrested or is the aim that the police or the public prosecution to see sense?
S: The aim is to highlight he hypocrisy of the law, they’ve targeted one isolated woman when they know fine rightly, we had an open letter in 2013 that said that over 100 people had supplied or taken these early medical abortion pills, we released another one recently with over 200 names of individuals who had done this so they know it happens, they know that women are accessing pills online, they’re safe but they’re illegal. That’s unacceptable, it’s unacceptable to arrest one single woman. Alliance for choice and their activists have been facilitating and helping women to access abortion for years.
K: What sort of traction have you found with local politicians, Is there much support? Obviously there’s certain stigma within some parties, I know recently a Sinn Fein MLA spoke out about his experience of fatal foetal abnormality. Have you had much support from Stormont??
S: There’s obviously quite a lot of silent supporters that support you behind closed doors but they wont in public because they have to face their electorate. We do have some quite open pro-choice MLA’s like Anna Lo, Steven Agnew and I know the green party has very progressive pro-choice policies, we’ve a way to go, but we have to highlight the hypocrisy of the law we have to highlight how it’s being used inconsistently in NI.
K: Do you feel like the ideal end result in this is the courts intervening and making a decision, or do you think it’s for Stormont or would you perhaps go further than that and suggest a royal commission?
S: Ideally it should be our legislators who are legislating to allow women to have the right to choose and to access reproductive healthcare at home. If that’s where it has to go, if it has to go through the courts, and there are discussions about judicial reviews, there’s the Amnesty My Body My Rights campaign which they’ve sought leave for a judicial review on the Dept of Justice consultation, so there are things happening, there are changes being made, it’s just slowly. But in the meantime obviously, the websites, women on web and women help women and the organization abortion support network are lifelines for women until such time as the laws change.
The situation as it is currently is one of a double standard. Women in Northern Ireland can access abortions, either by going against the law and ordering drugs via the internet from respectable organisations, or by travelling to a country where they can access an abortion. However this costs money, some people choosing to have an abortion may do so because they simply cannot afford to have children at this point in their life, accessing the funds to travel to another country for an abortion faces the same blockage.
According to some figures, up to 1 in 3 women will access an abortion in their lifetime, Northern Ireland is turning a blind eye to the reality of the situation, this is happening, whether legislators like it or not, there is a very real responsibility to citizens who are already accessing these facilities.
In the same way that the government may be dodging bullets by churches and charities stepping into the issue of poverty and malnutrition by setting up and maintaining food banks; Stormont is in some ways, very lucky that organisations like Amnesty International, BPAS, Alliance for Choice and many others have stepped into the care-vacuum created by the standoffishness of Stormont. This is happening day and daily, and to use a cliché… if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. My own views aside, the decision to prosecute/persecute one woman above all others shows a level of insecurity in the current legislation, this very much reeks of being a test-case, set to establish on which way the PPS and the courts will find… what happens subsequently remains to be seen.
This is a debate that needs to be had and needs to be had yesterday. Before another woman has to order pills online from a foreign country, before another rape victim has to scrimp, borrow and save enough cash to travel to England on her own to go through what, for many, is a very trying experience. In the same way that the “pro-life” campaigners shirked the opportunity to engage the problem in favour of standing back and letting some emotive images do the talking, Stormont can’t just wait for the courts to make a decision and then complain after-the-fact.