By Chloe Hutchinson
It should be a woman’s right to choose whether or not to have an abortion. It is a deeply personal decision that she should be able to make irrespective of the opinions of the government or the Church. Unfortunately, this right, which many of us take for granted, is not given in many parts of the world, including to our neighbours across the sea in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
Whilst it is part of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland has a devolved government that has control over many things, including reproductive rights of its citizens. This means that Northern Ireland is not included in the 1967 Abortion Act meaning that it still follows the laws in the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act – passed in the Victorian era! It is illegal for both women to administer, and for others (like doctors) to supply, drugs with the intent to cause an abortion. Breaking this law – as stated in the 2013 Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act – is punishable by up to 14 years imprisonment.
Even though it is a criminal offence to have, or aid, in an abortion or causing a miscarriage, this law is rarely enforced. In fact in March 2013 the Alliance for Choice published an open letter signed by 100 men and women admitting to obtaining or taking abortion pills which are illegal in the region. None have been arrested. This just shows how outdated this law is and how public opinion (and to some extent government opinion) is behind more progressive reform.
One of the most problematic parts of Irish abortion legislation is the 1983 Constitutional Amendment, which actually takes the law backwards from 1861 rather than forward. It states that the right to life of the unborn child and the mother are to be treated as equal by law. This reduces the woman to no more than a vessel.
Under current legislation, last updated in 2013, abortion is only legal in two cases: 1) when there is a real and substantial risk to the woman’s life through both physical complications and the threat of suicide (but not in cases where the pregnancy was a result of rape or incest) and 2) when she can afford to travel to England where the operation is carried out (and it is in accordance with our laws). In 2012 around 4,000 Irish women travelled to England to have an abortion, 124 of whom were under the age of 18. Furthermore post-abortion care is provided for by the state in Ireland. This is hypocrisy and essentially says that abortion is acceptable if you are rich thus reinforcing the class gap. Women with money travel, women without money have children.
Whilst economic barriers are in place for many of these women, all of them face the cultural and social stigma surrounding abortion. It carries a very heavy stigma and many live in fear of discrimination and exclusion from neighbours, work colleagues, friends and even family that may discover that a woman has had an abortion. Religion is incredibly important in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland where 84% and 43% of the population is Catholic. The link between the state and the Church is a key reason for the pro-life policies even when the public are calling for pro-choice.
Just because it is legal to have an abortion does not mean that anyone has to have one. It merely gives the opportunity to women who want to. The decision is incredibly personal and affects the individual more than anyone else, therefore their choice should be the most important factor to take into account. It is the choice of the individual, not of the Church.
In gaining access to an abortion on the grounds that her pregnancy is a real and substantial risk to her life (whatever that actually means), women are forced to share their decision again and again, perhaps with up to 7 GPs and doctors. Obviously this takes time; surely action should be taken as quickly as possible when there is a significant risk to life?
This lack of access to free, safe and legal abortions often forces women to take horrific action into their own hands in desperate attempts to cause a miscarriage. Starvation, throwing themselves down the stairs, coat hangers – just some of the things that are tried.
In 1992 a 14 year old, who had been raped by her neighbour, was prevented from travelling to Britain for an abortion after the family asked if the DNA could be used in the trial against her rapist. In 2012, a miscarrying woman was refused a potentially lifesaving abortion because “Ireland is a Catholic country.”
I think we can agree that these laws are outdated, in fact almost medieval! But what can we do?
- Continue to campaign for comprehensive, factually correct sex and relationship education across the whole of the UK, not just for England.
- Put pressure on your local MP to bring it up in Westminster – whilst the policy is not made in Westminster their influence can have an outstanding impact, especially as there is a public consultation ongoing at the moment until the 17th January 2015
- Educate yourselves and others about current legislation and options available – share information.
- Get involved in Amnesty International’s “My Body My Rights” campaign – #MyBodyMyRights
- Directly support organisations like the Abortion Support Network through donations or volunteering (if possible).
This blog post was inspired by the phenomenal talk on the “My Body My Rights” campaign at Amnesty International Student Conference at the start of this month.