For Women In Northern Ireland, Today Is A New Dawn

It doesn't feel real yet, but Tuesday’s historic vote on abortion rights in Northern Ireland is a huge victory for women's rights, writes Marie Stopes' Kylie Harrison

Waking up the morning after the night before, it doesn’t feel real. It isn’t yet. But what is sure is women’s rights secured a huge victory on Tuesday night.

A few short years ago, abortion access on the island of Ireland seemed like a distant dream; yet thanks to decades of grassroots campaigning, Northern Irish women may soon be able to access legal abortion care at home, just like their sisters in the Republic.

I once heard Baroness Tonge say that “politics is the art of the possible”. It feels like Tuesday’s parliamentary activity is the perfect example of this philosophy. This victory for Northern Irish women came out of the blue, as a cross party group of MPs led by Stella Creasy tabled amendments to emergency Northern Irish legislation.

MPs voted overwhelmingly by 332 votes to 99 to extend access to abortion to Northern Ireland in the absence of a Northern Ireland Assembly, bringing the region into line with the rest of the UK, unless a power-sharing executive is restored.

The UK government is now obligated to bring forward secondary legislation that would decriminalise abortion in Northern Ireland and legalise abortion provision, if the Northern Irish Assembly has not been restored by 21st October 2019.

Until now, abortion care in Northern Ireland has been governed by the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act. This Victorian Act created a criminal framework where abortion still sits today. The 1967 Abortion Act created some legal grounds to have an abortion in spite of the Victorian law, but when the Abortion Act was not extended to Northern Ireland in the 60’s, women in Northern Ireland became second-class citizens.

This draconian legislation, enacted before women got the vote, gives women no choice but to give birth to babies they know will not survive outside the womb or to travel far from their family and friends to receive legal abortion care. Rape victims who want to access abortion care have no choice but to travel overseas to end their pregnancy, sometimes accompanied by police. For those who cannot travel, there has been no option but to continue an unwanted pregnancy or resort to buying illegal abortion pills online, risking some of the harshest criminal penalties in Europe, even in cases of rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormality.

And don’t be fooled into thinking this is an empty threat. Today in Northern Ireland, the mother of a 15-year-old girl faces prison after obtaining abortion pills for her underage daughter, who was in an abusive relationship – the same pills available on the NHS in England, Wales and Scotland.

As the only independent abortion care provider in Northern Ireland from 2012 - 2017, we found the restrictive laws made the services we could provide extremely limited. Today, our doctors and nurses continue to see first-hand the suffering these restrictions cause, forcing thousands of women and girls to travel to our clinics in England for care every year. We know that restricting abortion does not prevent it happening, it just exports it somewhere else.

For too long Westminster has hidden behind the excuse that abortion is a devolved issue and up to the Northern Irish Assembly in Stormont to manage. But devolution – even when functioning – does not relieve the UK government of their responsibility to uphold human rights in Northern Ireland. The UN has repeatedly stated the current abortion restrictions in Northern Ireland are tantamount to torture, and that it is the UK government which has responsibility for ensuring that our laws are in line with the state’s international human rights obligations.

So, Tuesday’s historic vote is a great step forward and huge victory for compassion and common sense. In 2017, Stella Creasy brought another amendment, with wide cross-party support, which led to the government deciding to waive the fees for women travelling from Northern Ireland to England for abortion. But she knew that funded treatment was just a stepping stone and not the solution to the injustice of Northern Ireland’s archaic abortion laws. She has been relentless in her pursuit of equality and deserves the highest praise.

Meanwhile, pro-choice campaigners, including women like Sarah Ewart with heartrending personal tales of loss, have refused to give up. Buoyed by the referendum in the Republic of Ireland, the chant of every UK pro-choice organisation, charity, and campaigner has been ‘The North is Next’, ‘The North is Next’.

As abortion rights in the US endure sustained attacks from Alabama to Illinois and one of the candidates to be the next UK Prime Minster reiterates his personal belief that the abortion time limit should be halved from 24 weeks to 12, yesterday’s vote adds to the small number of reproductive victories that we cling to in these uncertain times. From the resounding vote to repeal the Eighth Amendment in the Republic of Ireland in 2017 to the Isle of Man becoming the first place in the British Isles to decriminalise abortion earlier this year, there is cause for optimism and with MPs like Stella Creasy by our side the future looks bright. There is still much to do, but positive change is coming one way or another. Roll on October 21st.

There is still much to do, but change is coming one way or another. Roll on October 21st. The North is Now!

Kylie Harrison is UK communications manager at Marie Stopes International