It’s feels unbelievable - and yet totally obvious. In what appears to be a landslide victory for those campaigning for the decriminalisation of abortion, the people of Ireland have made clear that it is not abortion that is unacceptable or unethical, but the act of denying women the ability to make that choice for themselves. For decades, the 8th amendment has prevented women from Ireland accessing safe, legal abortion at home. For decades, those women have been forced either to make the long journey to clinics in England, with the huge emotional and financial burden that entails, or take their chances ordering pills online. This is no way to treat women, and the people of Ireland have stood up and said so.
But this is still the way women living in part of our country today are treated. In Northern Ireland abortion is all but banned under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, which makes it a criminal offence for any woman to end her own pregnancy and for anyone to assist her in doing so, punishable by up to life in prison.
In February of this year, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) declared that the UK was violating the rights of women in Northern Ireland by the restrictions placed on abortion, and recommended that abortion should be decriminalised by the removal of sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act (OAPA). These incidentally underpin abortion laws across the UK - the 1967 Abortion Act did not remove them, merely provided exemptions to prosecution. A wide variety of medical bodies and women’s organisation no longer feel this framework, based on a 19th century criminal code, is acceptable.
While the UK Government last year agreed to pay for the care of women who travel to England from NI to abortion, after a wave of cross-party support for the move garnered by the MP Stella Creasy, this does not reduce the toll of travelling. We know because we speak to women every day who are making that journey. The stress, the logistical burden at what is already an emotional time is at times unbearable. But it also does nothing for the many women who simply cannot leave home, vulnerable women in coercive relationships, those with work and childcare duties which make a trip to England impossible. They still risk criminal sanction for inducing their own abortion. If they seek help and inform healthcare staff they have used abortion pills, doctors and nurses are under a duty to report them under the 1967 Criminal Law Act. In the last two years a number of women have been through the courts for the use of abortion medication bought online, and one case is still ongoing.
Ministers repeatedly say abortion law in Northern Ireland is a devolved issue but the fact is the UK Government has responsibility for these women and for ensuring all parts of the UK meet their obligations on human rights. Given the absence of a government in Northern Ireland, Westminster has a both a moral and legal duty to act.
But wouldn’t this ride roughshod over the views of the people of Northern Ireland? No, it wouldn’t. Opinion polls in Northern Ireland repeatedly show support for reform. A survey for Amnesty International found 58% of people thought women who have abortions should not be punished, and 59% of people thought healthcare professionals should not be punished for assisting, indicating strong support for repeal of those sections of the OAPA recommended by the UN.
Repealing the sections of the OAPA would not prevent a future government in Northern Ireland determining the circumstances in which abortion could be offered, if they chose, but it would mean the underlying criminal code – one of the most punitive in the world – would be gone, and women and their care providers could no longer face prison.
As the (Conservative) Northern Ireland minister Lord Duncan of Springbank said last week, in 2018 “we should not be relying on a Victorian law. It is time for change.”
It’s definitely time for change, and the vote in Ireland must accelerate that.
What can you do? Write to your MP and tell them why this matters to you, and why the women of Northern Ireland must not be left behind. You can do just that here.