Alliance For Choice – #dropthecharges

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…

Abortion

 

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.

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  • murdockp

    Back to my middle class law enforcement point about the PSNI and Civil Service as they continue to target Normal people and ignoring organised groups who respond with violence.
    So let us summarise. A woman procures a drug illegal in NI and legal in the rest of the world and she feels the full force of the law upon her.
    Paramilitary groups dress up in full military garb from both sides of the community with brandishing illegal weapons and inciting terrorism and nothing happens.
    Our society is sick to the core, I have lost all respect for our law enforcement agencies. I never had any respect for our MP’s so no respect to loose here.

  • Korhomme

    “In Northern Ireland however, these drugs are not readily available. The woman in question obtained these unlawfully…”

    Interesting bit of legal hair-splitting here; it’s illegal to ‘procure’ an abortion, but is it illegal to obtain the pills? It would be illegal to use them. There are other ‘home remedies’ supposedly using things commonly found around the house, but not illegal to possess (and of dubious efficacy).

    Meanwhile, for those in financial difficulties in both parts of Ireland, apply here:

    https://www.abortionsupport.org.uk/

    You might consider financially supporting this organisation.

  • Catcher in the Rye

    Nail on head.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    Not necessarily legal hair-splitting but confusing legislation, it seems. Emergency contraception i.e. the morning after pill, is legal here and is prescribed (not necessarily universally: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/northern_ireland/3910957.stm). And it is in effect abortive.

    Later term abortion procedures are also legal in NI in certain specific circumstances. Yet it is illegal to procure an abortion according to the 1861 Offences Against the Persons Act.

    And then the WHO “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.'”

    Not only is wee Norn Iron out of step with the rest of the world, it also appears that our legislature sees us as too dumb to notice the anomalies.

  • Catcher in the Rye

    Section 58 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 :

    “Every woman, being with child, who, with intent to procure her own miscarriage, shall unlawfully administer to herself any poison or other noxious thing, or shall unlawfully use any instrument or other means whatsoever with the like intent, and whosoever, with intent to procure the miscarriage of any woman, whether she be or be not with child, shall unlawfully administer to her or cause to be taken by her any poison or other noxious thing, or shall unlawfully use any instrument or other means whatsoever with the like intent, shall be guilty of felony ..”

    A cursory reading of this suggests that it criminalises a woman who takes any substance with the intention of causing an abortion, or uses any kind of implement with the intention of causing abortion, is committing an offence.

  • Korhomme

    I think your reading is correct. It isn’t the possession of the “poison” which is illegal, it is the intent to “procure an abortion” with it which is. Likewise, owning a knitting needle isn’t illegal; using it to procure an abortion is.

  • Catcher in the Rye

    IANAL – but if I understand the case law correctly (the “Bourne Judgement” of 1938) the courts found the 1861 Act to be ambiguous in the case of a pregnant woman whose physical or mental wellbeing was in danger, and ruled that abortion was permissible in these circumstances.

    The old Stormont parliament then tightened up on that by legislating in 1945. That legislation specifies that abortion could only occur if the mother’s life was in danger. This is a more strict test in legal terms than the requirement that the mother’s physical or mental wellbeing be in danger. ie a pregnancy going badly wrong could not justify an abortion if it would leave the mother paralyzed or cause brain damage.

    It’s not our legislature which is the problem so much as our executive. The idea is to keep the abortion regime here ambiguous so that doctors err on the side of caution. This is why the Department of Health won’t publish guidelines (despite being ordered by a court to do so).

    For this to change a doctor would have to be actively willing to challenge it – risking their career and all sorts of other things. This has happened to a limited extent with the arrival of the Marie Stopes clinic who have apparently successfully established that a medically induced abortion can occur at up to 8 weeks. I’m not sure exactly how they managed to accomplish this within the current legal framework but the anger from conservatives in the Assembly and their efforts to legislatively ban Marie Stopes in response suggests that they are on a secure footing.

  • Korhomme

    When the morning after pill, the emergency contraception was introduced it seems that it was felt to work by preventing implantation into the uterus of a fertilized ovum. This methodology has been questioned subsequently; there is evidence that the morning after pill works by delaying or preventing ovulation; that cannot be seen as it being an abortifacient.

  • Catcher in the Rye

    exactly.

    although note that possession of the “poison” may well be illegal under other legislation ie. that which prevents people from possessing or exchanging medicines without a valid prescription.

  • Korhomme

    Gin, it’s said, was used as an abortifacient in the past. It’s not illegal to possess gin.

  • Catcher in the Rye

    theoretically, it would be if you intended to use it to induce an abortion, according to the 1861 Act.

    In practice the prosecution would have considerable difficulty proving this.

  • Artemis13

    Medical abortion can only be provided by MSI if the same conditions are met – that there is serious risk to the life or long term health of the pregnant person – so only the very limited number of people who meet those criteria can be given the pills by MSI. It isn’t a case of if you want it, pay for it or a loophole- they operate entirely within the narrow confines of the existing law. They don’t release the number of abortions they carry out, but I expect it is very low.

  • Artemis13

    The morning after pill is not an abortifacient as it prevents pregnancy, rather than terminating one. Whichever way it works a person is not deemed to be pregnant until the fertilised egg is implanted, so either by preventing implantation or delaying ovulation it doesn’t actually end a pregnancy. (This doesn’t take into account views outside of medical/legal definitions that life begins at conception obviously)

  • Artemis13

    or anyone who helps her.

  • Barry Gilheany

    To quote the old Civil Rights mantra “British rights for British citizens”. Extend the 1967 Abortion Act to NI.