Two current high profile abortion cases relating to women from Northern Ireland have a striking symmetry. In one case, a woman in Belfast is being prosecuted and faces up to five years in prison for illegally buying abortion medication for her daughter. In another case, heard by the appeal court last week, a woman and her daughter who had to pay to have an abortion in England, argued that women from Northern Ireland should have access to NHS-funded abortions.
The Stormont government has doggedly clung on to a Victorian law prohibiting abortion, but it cannot stop women leaving the country to have one. Over a thousand women a year do. They not only face the expensive and, for some, lonely journey to the mainland, but they also have to pay for the abortion. The UK government could waive the cost of treatment if it chose to. After all these are some of its own citizens paying a high price for a procedure that is free for women in England, Scotland and Wales. But it has chosen not to do so, and the court last week confirmed an earlier ruling that the government is not obliged to pay. Abortion is a devolved issue - decided by the Northern Ireland government - and Westminster has washed its hands of it. Women are free to come to England for an abortion and that's the end of the matter. Except of course it's not.
It's not the end of the matter if you are too poor to afford to get to the airport, let alone the flight and the cost of the abortion.
It's not the end of the matter if you're an asylum-seeker who doesn't have the right papers to travel.
It's not the end of the matter if you're trapped in a relationship with a violent partner and can't get away.
It's not the end of the matter if you're a teenage girl who cannot ask her family for help.
It's not the end of the matter if you're a woman who might lose her job if she takes a day off work.
It's not the end of the matter if you're a single parent with no childcare options.
It's not the end of the matter if you're lonely, depressed, perhaps even suicidal.
These are just some of the people who might decide that the best thing for them is to buy abortion medication online. Travel for two to England and an early abortion procedure can cost £900. Compared to that, an online consultation and mail-order medication at less than £70 may be a better, or the only, option. Women in Northern Ireland are not alone. All over the world where abortion is illegal women are taking abortion medicines (mifepristone and misoprostol) purchased over the internet or buying misoprostol over the counter from their pharmacist. Medical abortion is saving the lives of women on every continent* that otherwise would have been lost in the backstreets. The genie is out of the bottle, but the authorities in Northern Ireland seem to want to stuff it back in. It begs the question - what are women in Northern Ireland supposed to do?
They really are stuck between a rock and a hard place. The rock is a massive bill. The hard place is prison.
In this context the hashtag #DropTheCharges - employed by activists such as Alliance for Choice whose members are asking to be arrested for buying or using abortion pills in solidarity with the Belfast mother - takes on a double meaning. We must maintain the pressure on Northern Ireland to liberalise its abortion law which was condemned by the United Nations Human Rights Committee, and described by Amnesty International's representative there as 'a global embarrassment'. In the meantime the authorities must drop the criminal charges against the mother doing what she could to support her daughter, and the authorities in England must drop the charges for abortion for women from Northern Ireland.
#DropTheCharges #DropTheCharges NOW!
Women from Northern Ireland and Ireland who have to travel to the mainland for abortions can get financial and logistical support, information and advice from London-based charity Abortion Support Network.
*Women on Web and Women Help Women provide medical abortion consultation and World Health Organization approved medicines to women. Not all online providers will give accurate advice, and the quality or contents of pills purchased online may not be guaranteed.