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Abortion Rights And Wrongs: Women's Rights Must Not Be Used As A Bargaining Chip With The DUP

13/06/2017 15:35
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Eileen is 17 years old and finds out that she is pregnant. She's in a relationship with a boy who's a bit older than her. It's a bit off and on. She tells him about the pregnancy and he's not that interested. After a few weeks she plucks up the courage to tell her mum who holds her hand and helps her think about her options. Eileen decides she wants to end the pregnancy. But this is where the next part of the story depends on where Eileen lives: Belfast.

Eileen knows that she can only legally have an abortion if her life is at risk or if there is a permanent or serious risk to her mental or physical health. Her mum knows that too so she thinks about whether to pay for them to go to England to have the procedure or to find another way. She can't afford the trip and the clinic fees and doesn't want to delay things any further. She's heard about abortion pills so she searches on the internet and orders them online. Meanwhile, Eileen confides in one of her friends, who tells her mum, who reports Eileen's mum to the police. They raid their home looking for the pills and Eileen's mum is now facing criminal charges. For trying to help her daughter have an abortion. In the UK. In 2017.

If Eileen were in Liverpool, Manchester, London or indeed anywhere else in the UK she would find that abortion is not available on demand, she would need to get the approval of two doctors before going to an abortion clinic for the procedure and it may still take a few weeks. But she would be able to go ahead and have the abortion on the NHS. It would be provided safely in an abortion clinic and, although distressing and not easy for her, and she might have to get passed the anti-abortion protesters outside the clinic, she will almost certainly recover, come out the other side and get on with her life. And neither Eileen nor her mum would be facing prosecution.

Eileen's access to abortion is not primarily a health issue. It's not her health that is getting in the way and it's not that the services are not there. She is just prevented from having a termination because her access to abortion is not regarded as her fundamental human right. But it is. In 2015 a High Court Judge ruled that the current law on abortion in Northern Ireland was incompatible with human rights law. In his ruling, Mr Justice Horner said there was "one law for the rich and one law for the poor," because the law makes it "much more difficult for those with limited means to travel to England." Despite this ruling, in 2016 the Northern Ireland Assembly declined to extend abortion rights to cases where there is fatal foetal abnormality.

The UK Government is now about to embark upon a confidence and supply arrangement with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). A political party whose representatives believe in creationism, that gay relationships are 'ungodly', that breastfeeding in public is exhibitionist, and whose leader has vowed not to see the 1967 Abortion Act extended to Northern Ireland but (generously) said she would carefully consider provision for rape victims. To say that we and a large number of other women's and progressive organisations are alarmed and extremely concerned by this arrangement is an understatement.

That is why the Fawcett Society has joined forces with BPAS, Women's Aid, Mumsnet, the TUC and many others to write an open letter to the Prime Minister. Fundamentally, we want a categorical assurance from the Government that women's rights will not be used as a bargaining chip with the DUP. The UK is a fundamentally pro-choice society. We expect our Westminster Government to defend and reflect that. The DUP do not, yet they hold the balance of power in this new arrangement.

But more than that, it is time for women in Northern Ireland to have their human rights respected in the same way as women in the rest of the UK. Now that is a Union worth defending.

Sam Smethers is chief executive of the Fawcett Society

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