Outraged By Alabama's Abortion Ban? Look Closer To Home For Our Own War On Women

As much as we would like to believe that abortion bans couldn't happen here, for women and doctors in Northern Ireland, this is already their reality.

“Dangerous”, “barbaric” and “exceptionally cruel”. Alabama’s decision to legislate for a near total ban on abortion has provoked outrage across the globe.

And rightly so: the bill, passed in a Republican super-majority senate comprised of 25 men and three women, bans abortion even in cases of rape, and threatens doctors who perform abortions with up to 99 years imprisonment.

This is state legislation with national implications. Buoyed by their success, anti-abortion campaigners are already talking of the potential for the bill to effectively reverse Roe vs Wade, which legalised abortion in the US, if it is upheld by a Supreme Court that has already been filled with Conservative justices by Trump.

Pro-choice campaigners have described the bill as part of a national “war on women” – one which Americans must “fight like hell.”

The developments in the US are shocking, but we cannot be complacent.

As much as we would like to believe that this could not happen here in the UK, the reality is that laws banning abortion and criminalising women and doctors already exist.

The 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, which was passed by an all-male parliament before women could even vote, criminalises abortion across the UK from the moment an egg implants in to the lining of the womb.

The 1967 Abortion Act provided clinicians and women with a legal exemption, but only if they meet certain criteria, and only if the procedure is approved by two doctors.

Any woman who has an abortion outside of these strict grounds – by using abortion pills purchased online, for example, can be imprisoned for life. Prosecutions in England, Wales, and Scotland are rare: but sadly this is not the case in Northern Ireland.

The 1967 Abortion Act was not extended to Northern Ireland. As a result, abortion is only permitted in the most exceptional of circumstances and the warning that Alabama’s bill could create a “desert of abortion provision” in the US is already the reality for the people of Northern Ireland.

Last year, only 12 abortions were performed in Northern Ireland, while more than 900 women travelled to England at a huge personal and emotional cost.

A parliamentary inquiry in January heard that a 12-year old rape victim travelled for abortion care in England under police escort so that the foetal remains could be collected as evidence.

The anti-choice architects of the Alabama bill felt confident in criminalising doctors, but even they didn’t go as far as to criminalise women. Meanwhile, in Northern Ireland, a 21-year-old student was handed a three-month suspended prison sentence for procuring her own abortion at 10-12 weeks of pregnancy, and a mother is awaiting trial for providing abortion pills to her then-15-year-old daughter.

In England, doctors have been threatened with legal sanction for incorrectly completing the legal paperwork to permit a termination. Our abortion law, like Alabama’s, is dangerous, barbaric, and extremely cruel.

Trump will visit next month, no doubt to be greeted by protesters who are furious to see a politician sit back and watch as anti-abortion laws place women’s health and lives at risk.

Yet we have our own war on women right here in the UK, and we too need to fight like hell.

Let’s send a message to our MPs that abortion bans have no place in Alabama, and they have no place in the UK. Join the campaign now.

Katherine O’Brien is head of media and policy research at the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS)

Christopher Aluka Berry / Reuters