The time has come. The people of Ireland will take to the polls this Friday to return their second major social decision in under three years. When same-sex marriage was approved, it was heralded as a turning point in the nation’s history. Now, Ireland’s coming of age is about to be tested again as the nation goes to the polls this Friday on the question of abortion rights. For the women of Northern Ireland, there is a Brexit angle to their own situation - and for them Friday will be monumental.
The United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland is not ‘united’ on the question of abortion rights. Abortion has been legal in certain circumstances in the rest of the UK since 1967, but in Northern Ireland abortions are only available when continuing with the pregnancy would make the woman a ‘mental or physical wreck’ – which does not include circumstances where the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, or when the foetus has a fatal abnormality. That means that in order to access legal abortion, hundreds of Northern Irish women a year are forced to make the journey to England, Scotland, or Wales.
With the Republic of Ireland set to vote on abortion this Friday, the consequences of that vote and the Brexit negotiations could have huge ramifications for the women of Northern Ireland. The polls are showing that 47% of the Irish public support legalizing abortion up to 12 weeks, while 37% oppose it – but many commentators warn that Ireland may have its own ‘Brexit moment’ with the risk that the opposition vote is being underestimated. If the law were to change, that could herald a dramatic and positive change not only for the women of Ireland, but also for women in the north. But the debate over where a hard border would sit has not been considered for the impact it might have on Northern Irish women.
The stats are quite clear: currently a large number of women in both Ireland and Northern Ireland are heavily reliant on their current ability to cross to the UK mainland. Figures from the Department of Health and Social Care indicate that 3,989 women from either Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland took a boat or plane over to England or Wales to gain access to abortion treatment in 2016 - an average of 11 women per day. The same report goes on to say that Irish women accounted for 82.6% of abortions provided to non-British residents that year.
The possibility of reigniting political tensions in Ireland has been rightly highlighted in the press, the practical consequences of this proposal for women in particular has received comparatively little attention. For example, a woman in Northern Ireland who discovers she is pregnant post-Brexit and wants to obtain an abortion could be hit with an £85 bill and 6-week wait to be issued with a passport to access her rights in mainland Britain. Depending on how Ireland votes on Friday, and where the Brexit negotiations end up, Northern Irish women will still be looking to the male triumvirate of Michel Barnier, David Davis and Leo Varadkar to help determine their right to access full reproductive health rights and services.
Having an abortion is already one of the hardest decisions a woman can make and it’s disgraceful that government policy is currently set on a course of trying to make this process even more difficult.
And it doesn’t stop there. Refugee support groups and pro-choice campaigners have also highlighted the potential impact on migrant women. According to the Immigrant Council of Ireland and the Irish Refugee Council, women who are asylum-seekers, refugees, undocumented or victims of trafficking already face a unique set of legal and financial barriers when it comes to accessing abortion services. These women, who come from countries outside the EU to Ireland through study and work visas, face visa restrictions and delays if they need to travel to another European country for an abortion – time and money they don’t have.
Brexit may make this process more arduous and, as supporters of women’s reproductive rights, it is our duty to prevent the government further removing women from control over this process.
With the Northern Irish Assembly still suspended, having already rejected a change to the law back in 2016, politicians across the whole of the UK should consider how to get the law changed for the women of Northern Ireland so that their laws on abortion no longer contravene the basic human rights of British women, regardless of Brexit.
As for Brexit, making life even more difficult for women to access their rights is another mark on the long list of reasons why creating any hard border between either Northern Ireland and mainland Britain or between Northern Ireland and the rest of Ireland would be self-defeating.
Brexit limits our rights. Brexit limits women’s rights of the most fundamental nature. It’s time for politicians to put staying in the EU on the table in a people’s vote.
Eloise Todd is chief executive of Best for Britain