THE BLOG

Why I Hope This Week Marks a Turning Point for Women in Northern Ireland

02/02/2015 17:10 GMT | Updated 04/04/2015 10:59 BST

My colleague has just taken a call from a woman in tears in Northern Ireland. She wanted us to know about the silent support for Marie Stopes, and how she wishes she and others could speak out for women's right to choose. She hopes we understand, and wants us to know that "Belfast is a rural community, living in a modern society, and nothing like the old-fashioned ways people at the top portray."

We're so grateful for her call and all those like it. But this week, I have reason to hope that 'those at the top' in Northern Ireland may be compelled to think again when it comes to their stance on abortion.

Firstly the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) is seeking leave for a judicial review against the Department of Justice concerning what they regard as the incompatibility of the current law on abortion with international human rights.

What this means in practice and what has been repeated ad nauseam by the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, is that women in Northern Ireland are treated as second-class citizens.

They pay their taxes as citizens of the UK but are barred from accessing one vital part of the NHS - free, safe and legal abortion services. The NIHRC think it is grossly unfair that women here cannot access abortion services when they have had a diagnosis of serious foetal abnormality or where they have become pregnant as a result of rape or sexual abuse - basic healthcare that is available to every other woman in the UK.

The second is the screening of a BBC3 documentary 'Abortion: Ireland's guilty secret?' Not an easy film to make given the stigma surrounding the issue let alone the intrusion into the private lives of women who make the journey every day to England and further afield. One would hope that the enthusiasm of the programme makers is matched only by a compassionate portrayal of the women who let them film their journey.

Both of these events are part of a continuing debate around women's access to vital healthcare. That debate started a long time ago and was given new impetus with the arrival of Marie Stopes International in Belfast in 2012, the first private sexual and reproductive health care centre in Northern Ireland offering early medical abortion within the legal limits.

In the last three years as director of that clinic, I have met and talked with women from all walks of life, of all ages and of different means, faiths, races and nationalities, who are seeking abortion for all sorts of varied and complex reasons. What I do is to support them in their choices, whatever they may be and I am constantly amazed by their courage and bravery.

Women who run the gauntlet of abuse and public shaming in the middle of a busy Belfast street to get the help and support they need, women who are forced into debt paying up to £2,000 for a procedure, flights and hotels and women who are forced to leave the country to have an abortion, even though they have been raped or their foetuses have no chance of surviving outside the womb.

Women like Diane (not her real name) who arrived at the Belfast clinic shaking and distressed after being confronted by protestors waving a plastic foetus in her face and accusing her of murder. During her consultation Diane told the nurse that she had become pregnant after being repeatedly raped, sexually abused and beaten by her partner over a three-day period. He also beat their children and threatened to do it again if she became pregnant.

A neighbour responding to the screams called the police who took Diane and her children to the hospital to be treated for their injuries while social services found them room in a refuge. In her own words she "was lucky to survive" but Diane didn't feel safe. We were able to support her in her decision and she travelled to England for an abortion. These are the women whose stories make me cry, but whose resilience makes me strong.

When we first opened in Northern Ireland, Marie Stopes International said we were not here to change the law: we were here to provide services within the law and that is what we do. What is clear to me and others who provide services for women is that the law does need to change.

To force a woman, who is pregnant as a result of rape or sexual abuse, or who is carrying a baby with a diagnosis of serious foetal abnormality, to continue with that pregnancy against her will is degrading, humiliating and painful. The NIHRC challenge is a much needed first step and I hope that those in positions of influence and power will take a moment to consider their part in ensuring the safety, wellbeing and equity of women in our community who deserve their support to access legal health services.