TW: This article contains references to sexual and domestic violence.
On the 24th October 2017, the UK Supreme Court considered Northern Ireland’s abortion laws. The case was taken by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. In its judgment on the 7th June 2018, the Court found that the Commission did not have standing to take the case but found, obiter, that Northern Ireland’s laws breached Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights. The High Court in Belfast made a similar ruling earlier this month.
The Supreme Court’s judgment is a sprawling 144 pages long. Among the legal arguments and dissents, you will find women’s stories.
“As one example of a case involving rape, Dawn Purvis of Marie Stopes International Northern Ireland (“MSNI”) cites client B, who presented at MSNI pregnant after being raped by her partner, with whom she was enduring a domestically violent relationship and who had refused to allow her to use any contraception. Her GP had refused to refer her to any health care provider on the basis that abortion was illegal in Northern Ireland, and MSNI assessed her as ineligible for an abortion under Northern Ireland law. Client B was upset and distressed at being informed that she would have to travel to England for an abortion, this being compounded by her fear of her partner and of his reaction if he found out that she was pregnant and planning a termination. She underwent a termination outside Northern Ireland.”
In another paragraph is the story of a 15-year-old girl:
“The case of two other interveners before the Supreme Court calls for mention. They are mother and daughter, identified as the JR76 interveners, referring to judicial review proceedings to which they are party in Northern Ireland. The daughter aged 15, and therefore legally unable to consent to sexual intercourse, became pregnant as a result of a relationship with a boy one year older. The boy was abusive, and threatened to kick the baby out of her and to stab it if born. The daughter wanted to continue her schooling and go to university. Discussing the situation with her supportive mother, the daughter decided that she could not go through with the pregnancy or a termination in England. She would have had to obtain travel documents and go with her mother. Instead, she asked her mother to obtain pills to put an end to the pregnancy, neither apparently realising this was unlawful.”
In the above case, the girl took the pills which resulted in heavy bleeding. She went to her GP who referred her to CAMHS. Social Services contacted the PSNI. The PSNI got the girl’s medical records from her GP. The girl’s mother was eventually arrested and charged by the PPS.
In another paragraph is the story of a 13-year-old girl:
“As an example of pregnancy due to incest, Dawn Purvis identified client C, aged under 13, who presented at MSNI with a relative after becoming pregnant as a result of familial sexual abuse elsewhere within the family. Client C had, as is common in such cases, concealed the abuse and pregnancy beyond nine weeks and four days. MSNI only provide medical abortions within that period, and then not to girls under 16. MSNI initiated its safeguarding procedures and social services and the PSNI became involved. Client C became frightened and distressed when told that she would have to travel to England but did so. Subsequently, the PSNI have asked to retain the products of conception and have travelled to England to collect them.”
These stories are distressing. They reflect the reality of Northern Ireland’s abortion laws. It is in this context, against this backdrop, that some of Northern Ireland’s MLAs are attempting to recall the Assembly today. They aren’t meeting to condemn the above but to allow it to continue.
On Saturday, as MPs voiced their opposition to Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal, the DUP’s Jim Shannon said that the deal would treat him as a second-class citizen. Today, members of his party will walk into the Assembly with the sole purpose of supporting a set of laws that treats women and pregnant people in Northern Ireland with utter disregard. If MLAs are successful in forming an Executive, same sex marriage will also be halted and rights will be denied to the LGBT community.
Make no mistake about it: today’s Assembly meeting is nothing more than a sham and a stunt. As I outlined yesterday, there is little chance of an Executive being formed. The MLAs that signed the recall petition know this. Still, they want their chance to defend the laws that sent a distressed 12 year old girl to England with members of the PSNI
When today is over, LGBT people Northern Ireland will finally be able to marry. No woman will be criminalised for taking abortion pills. We don’t know what the legal framework for abortion access will look like but, if we’re lucky, no woman will have to go through the hell of travelling to England again. On the 22nd October, Northern Ireland will take a giant leap forward into the 21st century.
Some of our MLAs will have their day today. The will get the chance to voice their views. We should never forget what they are trying to defend. Politicians can shout all they want. Change is on the way
Sarah is a writer and lawyer from Belfast.