Jessica Logan explains how Northern Ireland’s women are still fighting for legal and safe abortions
Since moving to university in England, friends are always keen to hear tales of my quaint Irish upbringing. Do we travel through our cities by horse and cart? Do we shovel coal into a generator to power our homes? Do we eat anything besides potatoes?
Whilst I would love to have spent the entirety of my childhood working the land and learning to Riverdance, the answer to these questions is, of course, no. We have electricity, internet and wireless telephones, and to the disgust and shame of my family, I don’t even like potatoes. Undeniably however, my country has a reputation for being religiously and politically ‘stuck in the past’ and whilst continual progress is undoubtedly being made, there is still some significant catching up to be done. One such area is Northern Ireland’s current stance on abortion, an issue that has finally been brought to the fore in the last couple of weeks.
Despite being an official part of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland remains separate from the 1967 Abortion Act, which allows terminations in England, Scotland and Wales at up to 24 weeks of pregnancy on a range of grounds. In Northern Ireland however (and also in the Republic) termination of pregnancy is only allowed if a woman’s life is at risk or if there is permanent or serious risk to her mental or physical health. The country’s largest political party, the DUP, have been dragging their heels on the issue for years and shockingly, in June, the DUP chair of the justice committee (incidentally, a committee comprised of just one woman and ten men) actually tried to tighten the current law. Recently however, a judicial review has found these rulings to be incompatible with the fundamental human rights of women and the European Human Rights Commission has urged the government to extend abortion to permit cases of serious foetal malformation, rape and incest.
The necessity of such amendments is substantiated by the everyday experiences of real women, whose distressing situations are exacerbated by the unrelenting force of current laws. Already grieving the loss of an unborn child or the victims of sexual crime, these women are placed in agonizingly difficult positions and stripped even further of control over their own bodies.
In 2013, after being told that her baby had no chance of survival due to foetal abnormality, the only option available at home to Northern Irish woman Sarah Ewart was to continue with the pregnancy until the baby died, and then to undergo an induced labour. Speaking of her experiences on radio, she said that doctors couldn’t even give her information about how she might terminate the pregnancy overseas, for fear of being prosecuted. Other victims of abortion restrictions include Savita Halappanavar, who died in an Irish hospital in 2012 after she was refused an abortion despite miscarrying and experiencing severe back pain. Last year, a woman was forced to give birth by caesarean section in the Republic of Ireland despite her claim that the pregnancy was the result of rape.
For many women, the only available option is to travel overseas for an abortion procedure, with figures showing that over 800 women travelled from Northern Ireland to England and Wales to access abortion services in 2013 and that in the following year, an estimated 12 Irish women made the crossing to Britain every single day.
As these women are not entitled to free NHS abortions, the procedure can cost up to £2000 (without taking travel expense into account.) This places a huge and unnecessary financial strain on those already dealing with the emotionally and physically distressing process of abortion, making it totally unviable for some and forcing others to face the journey alone.
Considering the remarkable political progress that has been made in Northern Ireland over the past several decades, it seems shocking and embarrassing that such a small and fundamentally commonsensical expansion of the law has taken such time and drastic measures to be implemented. This ruling is by no means a mandate for abortion on demand; in fact, its direct impact will only be experienced by the minority. However, the protection of these women from further and unnecessary trauma is an important step forward in Northern Irish women’s rights and one that I welcome.
Illustration by April Bates