Three women are asking to be prosecuted in Northern Ireland for obtaining and taking illegal abortion pills, in protest at the country’s draconian abortion laws.
Diana King, Collette Devlin and Kitty O’Kane handed themselves in at a police station in Derry on Monday. They hope that their actions will lead to a major trial – one that will shine a spotlight on the outdated nature of Northern Ireland’s 155-year-old abortion legislation.
A proposal to legalise abortion in the Northern Ireland Assembly was defeated earlier this year. Under the 1861 Offences of the Person Act, abortion is only legal in Northern Ireland if a woman can prove that continuing with the pregnancy would seriously threaten her life or health. Even in these extreme circumstances, abortion is illegal after nine weeks and four days of pregnancy.
Flanked by solicitors and dozens of pro-choice campaigners, King, 72, Devlin, 68, and O’Kane, 69, said that they were handing themselves in because they were so angry at the recent case of a young woman being prosecuted for procuring her own abortion. In April, a 21-year-old woman was given a three-month sentence for buying pills over the internet to induce an abortion. The sentence was suspended for a year.
Another woman will appear in a Northern Irish court in June, accused of buying abortion pills to give to a teenage girl – reported to be her own daughter.
Retired social worker King has campaigned for over a decade to have the UK’s 1967 Abortion Act extended to Northern Ireland. She said that she had bought the abortion pills “on several occasions” for other women who were too afraid to order them themselves.
Last year, over 200 pro-choice campaigners signed an open letter saying that they had procured abortion tablets for themselves or for other women, and that they were all willing to be arrested. No arrests have been made – and so King, along with Devlin and O’Kane, decided to deliver themselves to police. They said that they put themselves forward so that younger activists would not have to sacrifice their careers to go to prison.
“If you live here, you have to do this otherwise you would go mad,” said King. “It is a way of standing in solidarity with the women who are being hauled into court, and showing how shameful it is for the law to go after women in the most vulnerable situations.”
O’Kane, a retired teacher, said: “We’re very well prepared for the consequences that will come. Many of our women are being forced by a law that comes from the 19th century that doesn’t give them the freedom to make their own choice.”
Women in Northern Ireland who want an abortion can legally travel to England or Wales for the procedure. Once there, they have to pay up to £2,000 for private treatment, as well as covering the cost of travel and accommodation. (Northern Ireland residents are not eligible for abortions on the NHS.)
In total, since 1968, more than 200,000 abortions are estimated to have been performed in England and Wales on women travelling from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. But since many women are thought to give false addresses, the real number is probably much higher, according to Abortion Support UK.
Women who are unable to afford the cost of abortion in England and Wales often turn to abortion drugs bought over the internet for around £60. Although pills are considered safe and reliable in the first 10 weeks of pregnancy, it is illegal to buy or take them in Northern Ireland.
A spokesperson for pro-choice campaign group Alliance for Choice claimed that the police did not want to put activists on trial. “They don’t want to arrest anyone except the isolated, vulnerable women, who they have to arrest because someone has reported them to the police.”
Images: Facebook, Getty, iStock