There’s a lot of talk about abortion right now in London. Across the water, in the city where my best mate now lives, where I feel like a tourist or the odd time on a work trip I try to pass for a local. It feels weird to watch from over here in Northern Ireland as people with different accents to mine put forward a case for changing abortion law across the UK that is mostly about ending an abuse of human rights they don’t have to suffer because they don’t live here in this little corner. But they are speaking up for us anyway, and it’s about bloody time.
What’s happening right now in Westminster is a perfect storm created by the tension between political opportunity in the opposition ranks and complete intransigence from the majority of Northern Irish MPs. With 10 out of our 11 sitting MPs being from the DUP, the party who make the most capital back home from their insistence on an anti-choice position, it has made it particularly hard for British politicians to ignore the need to help us. Given the DUP’s position on this issue is so blatantly out of step with public opinion in Northern Ireland and the frustrating reality that devolution currently exists here in name only, then some sort of legislative solution from Westminster seems inevitable.
I’m a long-time campaigner for a change in law when it comes to abortion access. I work in women’s rights, organising on issues with a gendered dimension that primarily affect women. I’m also a person who just a couple of years ago needed an abortion. I was a worn-out mum to two young children at the time, one of whom was still only eight months old. I’d spent the previous few months coming to terms with the fact that my mental health was very poor after a period of severe post-natal anxiety that changed the shape of me in a way I’m still getting used to today. I was just starting to find my way back to feeling hopeful again and was terrified of the impact another pregnancy could have.
My reproductive experiences have had a bigger impact on me than anything else in my life. In a five-year period in my early 30s I was pregnant five times. I have two beautiful children, suffered two heart-breaking miscarriages in between, and have had one abortion. Joy, love, pain, loss, fear and, when it came down to it, relief at being able to make a choice that was right for me. I decided to travel to England for an abortion rather than access illegal pills so that I could receive the care I knew I deserved in that situation. I was lucky enough to be able to afford to do that. What I encountered in a Liverpool BPAS clinic was compassion, support, no judgement, other abortion seekers in a waiting room to smile at and share stories with. This is normal. What we have in Northern Ireland is not normal. It is a part of the long history of Ireland’s attitude to women (whether the DUP would like to admit the connection or not) which is to control them, hide them, or shame them.
In the time since I had my abortion in 2016, people like me can now get free abortion healthcare thanks to the actions of MPs. Others on low incomes can also apply to have their travel and accommodation expenses covered. These things make a huge difference to levelling the class playing field when it comes to who gets to exercise their human rights and who doesn’t. But it’s not enough, because there will always be people who can’t travel – those with childcare responsibilities they can’t get support with, those experiencing domestic abuse, those with insecure immigration status, with disabilities, young people, people in precarious work who have no idea how they’ll pay the bills if they lose a job over asking for time off… These are real barriers that are happening to abortion seekers every day and we can’t fix them with airfare.
But the biggest problem that will persist if we continue to rely on women travelling to access services in GB is the stigma that goes along with the ‘hide them or shame them’ part of the Irish solution. Instead we have to decriminalise abortion and create a legal framework and healthcare infrastructure here in our own towns and cities where it can be treated like the essential part of our dignity, rights and well-being that it really is. That’s the only way to see the kind of normalisation and cultural change that will allow women like me to make choices for ourselves without the stigma that comes with leaving your country because abortion is a criminal act where you live. That’s what we’ve been fighting for here in Northern Ireland alongside our sisters in the south and that’s what we hope Westminster can help us achieve.