Abortion law in Northern Ireland keeps putting women’s lives at risk

In Northern Ireland, abortion is legal only if a woman’s life or her physical or mental health is at risk. The 1967 Abortion Act, through which abortion was legalised in England, Wales and Scotland, was never extended to Northern Ireland and the main political parties still strongly oppose it. Instead, abortion is governed through sections of the 1861 Offence against the Person Act (a law that was passed before women could vote) and of the 1945 Criminal Justice.

REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton
The penalty for undergoing an illegal abortion is life imprisonment.An active anti-abortion lobby within both the Catholic and Presbyterian communities further contributes to the criminalisationof abortion: women seeking abortion are harassed, stigmatised and marginalised.As a result of this almost total ban on terminations in hospitals and social stigma, around 2,000 women every year travel to English hospital and clinics from Northern Ireland in order to receive medical care. Sometimes, they have to pay the National Health Service for having an abortion, a practice that is provided for free to English patients. Those who cannot afford to travel to Britain, which can have a total cost of around £900,often purchase ‘abortion pills’ online. These contain mifepristone and misoprostol and are fairly safe to take. Yet, their safety depends on the reliability of the website on which they are purchased and on whether they come with a detailed prescription. Even in the best cases, medical supervision is requiredwhen taking ‘abortion pills’, as they could cause intense vaginal bleeding.

These facts are well known by people in the UK, as they have been documented by journalists such as Nancy Platt. They are not a novelty, but rather the symptoms of a long-standing problem. It is in no way acceptable that women have to see their reproductive rights violated and their life put at risk in such a way and yet this is an issue that politicians in Northern Ireland still fail to address and that receives too little attention in the rest of the UK.

However, things have been slowly moving in Northern Ireland and more and more women are breaking away from the secrecy that surrounds the topic and are beginning to talk about abortion. Just since the beginning of 2015 several voices were raised against Northern Ireland abortion law. In a report published last February, Amnesty International denounced Northern Ireland’s abortion law as the harshest in Europe. Last June, Northern Ireland’s Human Rights Commission and Amnesty Northern Ireland backed the case brought by Sarah Ewert to the High Court Judicial Review against the Department of Justice.Ewert,whose baby would have been born without a functioning brain, was forced to have an abortion in England.She is now seeking to legalise abortion in the cases of foetal abnormity, rape and incest. In July, more than 200 pro-choice activists picketed one of Belfast’s biggest police stations and challenged officers to arrest them because they admitted procuring ‘abortion pills’. The protest was an act of solidarity with a Northern Irish woman that is being prosecuted for purchasing abortion medications for her daughter. The United Nations’ Human Rights Commission has recently said in a report that the abortion ban endangers women’s lives. As these voices increase in number and volume, Northern Irish politicians will have to adjust policies to answer to their demands.

@aplazzarin

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