© Emma Campbell
Northern Ireland is known for its history of religious and state conflict; a recent scar that most of us living here would wish healed. So strange then that the group most disregarded during the Troubles, yet vital to its peace process, i.e. women, should be the subject of unity between the extremes of both Catholic and Protestant religious voices this week. The anti-choice lobby in Northern Ireland is loud and full of hot air, not ones to worry themselves with inconvenient facts that disrupt their myths, but happy to harass women seeking advice from the Family Planning Agency on a regular basis.
In contrast, last week in Belfast there was a samba band accompanying Northern Irish pro-choice activists and their supporters in front of the City Hall. As an activist and researcher around this subject I have noticed a slow and gentle, but equally tangible sea change in the public acceptance of reproductive rights in this country and in the Republic of Ireland. Culturally, whilst many people here still might identify with the religion of their community, they are less beholden to its edicts and unreasonable demands of shame and acquiescence as they once were, and many who still practice their religion have become part of more progressive churches and communities. A recent survey even showed quite clearly that there was majority public support for a change to the abortion law.
The new Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast will only offer the early medical abortion (in pill form) to women up to 9 weeks pregnant and approved by two independent doctors, to the letter of the current Northern Irish law as it exists. More needs to be done, ideally the extension of the 1967 Abortion Act, but it is a good first move towards reproductive equality.
No laws have changed, this has always technically been possible in Northern Ireland, but the climate of fear and religious or political backlash has prevented some practitioners from risking their jobs and has also allowed the conscientious objections of others. In essence it has been like a secret lottery for women, if you lose you had to find thousands of pounds and flights to England or further afield, in secrecy and with a burden of shame laid down by those loud and extreme minority voices. I interviewed people who have had to volunteer to help these women and I travelled in their footsteps making the isolated journey across the Irish Sea, to where we like to export our women instead of helping them at home.
I have experienced an early miscarriage from a wanted pregnancy and it was a grief-ridden experience. However, there is a huge difference between a wanted and tried-for pregnancy and a pregnancy that is unwanted, for a huge amount of reasons (rape, spousal abuse, a wanted pregnancy that turns out to be a non-viable foetus, economic reasons and the health of the mother). Wanting a baby and not wanting a baby are part of the same large spectrum of choice. No one wants to force people not to have children anymore than we ought to force people to have children if they don't want to. Planning to be a parent should be helped and assisted with adequate birth control and sex education, and welfare support for children where necessary, which is exactly what the Marie Stopes clinic plans to offer. Instead of threats of life imprisonment and burdens of guilt, we should consider the sanctity of the life of the existing woman and her current family and put less emphasis on enshrining her only role as a baby factory.
Just look at what so many women and supportive men have achieved for Northern Ireland today, yes most of us can make babies but my friends and I will also keep striving to make other women’s lives even just a little bit better, because we are sick of being ashamed.