Living in London for the past few years, I’ve found that two facts often surprise people here. First, that Northern Ireland is part of the UK; second, that abortion is illegal in Northern Ireland.
Three years ago, I co-founded a campaign group, the London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign. We have marched, we have protested. We have written to our MPs, we have tweeted, we have chanted. Women have spoken out about their personal stories, women’s homes in Northern Ireland have been raided by police looking for abortion pills. And nothing has changed. We’ve been ignored by the UK government. We’ve been told that it’s a devolved matter. We’ve been told now is not the right time. We’ve been told to wait.
But we know that ‘waiting’ really means continuing the denial of basic healthcare, risking our lives and our health, sacrificing our autonomy, and keeping quiet while politicians wring their hands. I’m from the Republic of Ireland, and was part of an army of women who fought to repeal the total ban on abortion. We know what happens when change comes too late. I will never forget waking up to the news, in 2012 , that Savita Halappanavar had died in an Irish hospital because doctors would not give her a potentially life saving abortion after being told ‘This is a Catholic country’. In that moment something inside me changed - we were all culpable.
In 2010, Enda Kenny, our then Taoiseach said abortion was ‘not of priority’ when the European Court of Human Rights ruled against Ireland because the total ban forced a woman to travel to England for an abortion while having chemotherapy. In 2014, even after Savita Halappanavar died, the horrors of the Eighth Amendment came thick and fast. Miss Y, an asylum-seeker who had been raped, was turned back from an English port while travelling for an abortion. She went on hunger strike, became suicidal, and underwent a forced C-section. In the same year, a pregnant woman who was clinically dead was kept alive against her family’s wishes.It was called ‘experimental medicine’ and deemed unlawful.
It’s hard to fathom now how the Irish political establishment could claim that calling a referendum was not a priority sooner. Over 35 years, approximately 200,000 women and girls travelled from Ireland to England for abortion. Now, we are seeing the same intransigence in Westminster. How long will this government put its deal with the DUP ahead of providing healthcare to women and girls in Northern Ireland? How long will the government pledge to protect the ‘precious union’ of the UK, but treat women and girls in Northern Ireland as second class citizens? A prominent DUP MP, Sammy Wilson, was ‘not embarrassed’ about Northern Ireland’s abortion laws and said that without them children would be ‘discarded and put in a bin before they were ever born’. How long will the government hide behind devolution to defend its inaction on one of the harshest abortion laws in the world?
On November 18th, the mother of a 15-year-old girl (pregnant as a result of statutory rape) will stand trial in Northern Ireland for getting abortion pills for her daughter who was in an abusive relationship. The police were supplied with the daughter’s confidential GP records without her knowledge.These are the same pills that are available in England. On the NHS. And have been for the past 50 years.
Abortion in Northern Ireland is punishable by up to life in prison. There are no exceptions for rape or incest, or where the foetus will not survive after birth. The United Nations has called the abortion law in Northern Ireland “tantamount to torture”, the UK Supreme Court has “radical reconsideration’ is required and that the law ‘treats women like vehicles’. The UN is clear that devolution is no excuse, but the government continues to use this to justify inaction.
In 2017, an amendment by the Labour MP Stella Creasy, with wide cross-party support, forced the government agreed to waive the fees for women from Northern Ireland to England for abortion. In October last year, a further amendment tabled by Creasy and Conor McGinn passed by a huge majority. This time, it sought to hold Karen Bradley, the secretary of state for Northern Ireland accountable for the human rights violations associated with denial of abortion care and equal marriage rights. But Bradley and the government have continued to pass the buck to Stormont.
But Stormont has not sat for over two and a half years, and next week the government will kick the can farther down the road by postponing elections for another five months. Next week, Creasy will again table a series of amendments to compel the government to take responsibility for its human rights obligations on abortion in Northern Ireland.
Human rights rest on the accountability of governments, but this government seems content with using women and girls human rights as a bargaining chip to stay in power. On Friday, we began legal proceedings against the government, and launched a crowdfund to fund our case. We are a volunteer, grassroots campaign and we are worried about the costs of taking the government to court, but this is happening on our watch, and we are ready to push for change through every route. We might not win our case, but we will keep going. The North doesn’t need to be next. It needs to be now.
Cara Sanquest is co-founder of the London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign. For more information on the campaign, click here