There is a clear ministerial and Parliamentary majority for supporting these changes for Northern Ireland we simply need the opportunity for MPs to act

Emma Campbell is Co-Chair of Alliance for Choice

As one of the Co-Chairs of Alliance for Choice I am encouraged by the possibility of movement on both abortion rights and equal marriage in Westminster today. Yet another Executive Functions Bill is simply a delaying tactic by the UK Government who don’t want to rock their own Brexit boat and who are completely cowed by the DUP. No devolution, no direct rule, no governance ad nauseum. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t grasp this opportunity to give dignity to the LGBTQ community in equal marriage and freedom from barbaric treatment and stigma to the women and pregnant people who need abortions in Northern Ireland.

As well as a number of ongoing Judicial Reviews, and the statement by the Supreme Court Judges in 2018, the UN has repeatedly called on the UK government to provide equal access to abortion services across all the regions without criminalisation. Devolution is not a barrier when human rights are at stake and where the health and private lives of women, pregnant people and their families are jeopardised by the unjust ramifications of the 1861 Offences Against the Persons Act. It’s time that Parliament acted to use its powers to remove this draconian legislation that they foisted upon upon us and prove that they regard people who need abortion in NI as equal to those in England.

The Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey has consistently shown that the people of Northern Ireland want Westminster to legislate to reform the abortion law, 89% don’t think people should go to prison and 71% believe that it is a woman’s right to choose and over 80% of NI people surveyed for the Trade Union report, Abortion as a Workplace Issue study said they did not want women criminalised; Of the 3,180 respondents, 2,031 were from NI, of those; 61% agreed / strongly agreed with the statement that the current restrictions on abortion access were cruel and inhumane & 85% stated a woman should not arrested and prosecuted for having an abortion.

In Northern Ireland, a lack of access to legal abortion beyond saving grave or fatal health outcomes means that every person who attempts to access it outside of the strict parameters of the law is at risk of prosecution, but equally it has the effect of turning the victims of incest, rape and domestic violence into criminals. As stated by the recent CEDAW inquiry;

“ the criminalisation of abortion places female victims of rape or incest at risk of being treated as criminals themselves and has contributed to the underreporting of rape, fearing prosecution and conviction”. and prove that they regard people who need abortion in NI as equal to those in England.

For this to continue only in Northern Ireland is a form of State violence against women and girls and has no perceivable benefits to women or to the wider community.

Alliance for Choice believes that this is clear evidence of State violence and abuse of women in the denial of abortion services in NI for those who need them. This does not only apply to those for whom the crisis pregnancy is a result of abuse or of a sexual crime, but to every person who risks their life and health by self-administering abortion pills without access to emergency medical care for fear of prosecution, or those who are forced to travel for abortion healthcare, or those who have been forced to endure a pregnancy they know will not survive against their wishes. CEDAW has been unequivocal in its summary[1]

My colleagues and I have been answering calls to people in distress for far too long. Not one more person should be arrested, not one more woman should be forced to secretly take abortion pills without knowing she has the support of medical staff if she needs aftercare and not one more girl should have to travel on a plane to access healthcare after being the victim of a sexual crime.

The current laws have meant that most women with access to financial means have been able to have abortions, but this requires travel to England, meanwhile those who don’t have the means or who live in precarious situations must take matters into their own hands using pills brought online or even continue with an unwanted pregnancy and birth. In Northern Ireland we have growing numbers of migrant and ethnic communities who come here to escape oppression and are largely unaware of the restrictions around abortion (which are usually greater than those in their birth countries).

Accessing abortion in Northern Ireland requires complicated navigation of the health system. Most GPs and hospital staff are too afraid to even recommend travel to England and the Dept. Of Health have as yet, refused to release guidelines for this particular pathway to care despite it being in place since October 2017. These complications make it already difficult for women who speak English and have access to the internet or networks of women who have had the same experience, therefore the difficulty is compounded for women who are new to the country and do not have the same access to this information, or even know where to get help.

All of us would urge MPs across the house to listen to the people of Northern Ireland, to the tens of thousands who have voted with their feet and taken planes and boats to England for over 50 years. No matter what happens in Parliament this coming week, someone will be on a plane tonight and someone else tomorrow morning, alone, away from home and the friends and family that could be their support network.

We have been escorts for women into the only abortion clinic in Belfast, now closed. We have raised money for people’s abortions, we have signed letters pointing to our needs to break an unjust law, Most shockingly and yet most necessary, we provide abortion seekers with advice, signposting, provision and legal help. Alliance for Choice is made up of people who have dealt with untenable pregnancies, we are people who have had abortions. But we are also often the first point of contact or the only one that people feel safe to talk to about abortion pills, the chances of prosecutions or reassuring them how to avoid bleeding to death if they need medical attention, ie: lying to medical professionals.

There is a clear ministerial and Parliamentary majority for supporting these changes for Northern Ireland we simply need the opportunity for MPs to act – above are just some of the organisations who support our calls for change.

[1]The Committee assesses the gravity of the violations in NI in light of the suffering experienced by women and girls who carry pregnancies to full term against their will due to the current restrictive legal regime on abortion. It notes the great harm and suffering resulting from the physical and mental anguish of carrying an unwanted pregnancy to full term, especially in cases of rape, incest and severe foetal impairment, particularly FFA.83 The situation gives NI women three deplorable options: (a) undergo a torturous experience of being compelled to carry a pregnancy to full term; (b) engage in illegal abortion and risk imprisonment and stigmatisation; or, (c) undertake a highly stressful journey outside NI to access a legal abortion. Women are thus torn between complying with discriminatory laws that unduly restrict abortion or risk prosecution and imprisonment.

The systematic nature of the violations stems from the deliberate retention of criminal laws and State policy disproportionately restricting access to sexual and reproductive rights, in general, and highly restrictive abortion provision, in particular. Westminster and NI authorities acknowledge the magnitude of the phenomenon and choose to export it to England where NI women travel to access abortions. The UK’s observations and interviews with NI authorities clarify the deliberate intention neither to decriminalise abortion nor to expand the grounds for legal abortion. Availability of abortion in other parts of the State party does not absolve it of its responsibility under the Convention to ensure accessibility in NI. (our highlights)