This week, a 21-year-old Northern Irish woman was given a prison sentence, after inducing her own abortion with pills she bought online. The news hit home with women across the UK and beyond, but with one in particular- who was undergoing her own, legal, abortion. Here, she gives her account of her experience, and how different it would have been had she been in Northern Ireland.
The story travelled fast: a woman, aged 21, was yesterday handed a three month custodial sentence, suspended for two years, for undergoing an abortion in a Northern Irish court.
It circulated the Twittersphere with varying amounts of detail - she had been 19-years-old at the time, she bought pills online to induce an unwanted pregnancy to miscarry. She was "desperate". She pleaded guilty to procuring her own abortion by using a poison, and of supplying a poison with intent to procure a miscarriage.
As the story roamed around the internet, collecting comments, it spoke - to those women in Northern Ireland and Ireland who have, almost certainly, undergone illegal abortion at home. To the two women per day who travel from Ireland and NI to England, at great financial cost, to undergo abortion. It spoke to women in the US and the world over still reeling at US Presidential candidate Donald Trump's violent declaration that women - and, later, their doctors - should be "punished" for choosing abortion. And it spoke to the protesters in Warsaw, seen walking out of church last week as leaders proposed an intended ban on terminations in Poland.
What the story said, again and again, as it journeyed through our social spheres was that women's bodies, in 2016, do not belong entirely to them.
I heard the story very clearly. I read the court reports yesterday, as I underwent my own abortion.
I thought about how my experience compared with the nameless girl I read about: we were women; both living in the UK; both of us had sex (which I presume and hope on her part was consensual like mine); we both wound up, through one means or another, pregnant.
With the aid of artistic licence I imagined her, like me, noticing her period was unnervingly absent and calling in at a pharmacy at lunchtime, hoping she was being a bit of a drama queen. Sneaking into a toilet, weeing, waiting, catching her breath in her throat as two lines appeared on the Stick of Truth, eyeing her stomach suspicious of its hidden betrayal in the mirror later on. Sickness, fatigue, the inability to stop eating to stop the nausea taking hold again. I thought of both of us sat, quietly and knowingly, thinking how right now, we couldn't become mothers. But, right there, that was where the similarities ended.
Because, despite us both living under the same jurisdiction, I had one important thing that she did not: freedom to make a decision that was right for me.
In Northern Ireland, where she was living, a woman can be sentenced to life imprisonment for terminating a pregnancy. It's the only part of the UK where abortion is still illegal, thanks to a law which is now 150 years old. New guidelines purported to vaguely improve the draconian law, which was not changed when England and Wales introduced the Abortion Act in 1967, but in reality they make no difference. In Northern Ireland terminating a pregnancy is not just illegal and wrapped up in religious connotation, it's also weighted in shame.
And so, we took different paths. I went to my NHS doctor, explained I was pregnant, and was referred to a clinic. Meanwhile she, at 19, was trying to cobble together enough money to pay for return flights to England and a private abortion fee (it can cost in excess of £1000).
Three weeks later, yesterday (Monday), I went to a comfortable clinic in Greenwich, London, and discussed my treatment with a nurse. They checked my health, performed an ultrasound scan to check the pregnancy wasn't ectopic amongst other things, and administered safe doses of legal drugs to facilitate the choice I'd made. I was offered support via counselling afterwards. As is the case with all procedures on the NHS, I didn't have to pay for anything.
My decision was just that: mine. It wasn't questioned. I wasn't scared.
In Northern Ireland, the woman in court, it was said, despite her efforts was unable to afford to travel to England to get the care I received. Instead of having to secretly travel she was forced to procure pills illegally and administer them herself, without the reassurance and warmth of a trained nurse by her side, like I had.
Whilst I went home to wait for the pills to take their course with a packet of Hobnobs, Nina Simone and my closest two friends, she was alone. Unlike mine, who brought me hot tea and humour, her housemates called the police, who were told that the woman had bought drugs to induce a miscarriage online eight days earlier. The police found a foetus in a black bin bag in a household waste bin. She was arrested.
"We're so lucky we live in England," my friend commented last night as we talked about the court case. And maybe we are. Maybe I am lucky that I was afforded safe, appropriate care, and that my peers are supportive and I was allowed to make a decision autonomously about my own body. Conversely, then, could you argue that this woman was 'unlucky' for living in NI at this time, so that her body was, instead of being respected and cared for, politicised and imposed with rules and laws that undermined her and her health? I don't think so.
I realised on Monday, as I knocked back Ibuprofen, that I didn't feel 'lucky', or privileged, or grateful that I was afforded this treatment and this nameless woman, who represents so, so many, was not. Instead, I felt angry, and sad, and wholly outraged. What I have done this week is not a privilege. It's a basic human right that this woman was inhumanely denied.
Since when has not being persecuted been deemed a mere stroke of luck? I am not lucky. She was not unlucky. Decisions, by lawmakers, not fate, decided both our paths.
And they are decisions which can be upheld or overturned.
But what's worse is that Westminster are just as complicit in allowing my choices as they are in denying the choices of millions in Northern Ireland. Our government could - especially in light of an EU ruling that NI's laws on abortion are a breach of human rights - overturn this law. Yet, it sits, quietly ignorant, unwilling to rock the proverbial boat. When a caricature politician like Trump voices a grave remark about the subject, it serves in one way to highlight how outdated these policies are. But we can hardly think ourselves 'lucky' our leaders aren't like him, when they don't just say that women 'should be punished' for having an abortion but actively allow women to be punished.
After the bleeding stops, my abortion story will too. I might talk about it, and write about it, and it will be a part of my history but not of who I'll become next. In two years, I might remember it fleetingly, until the thought is lost again. I won't be put in a dock a few years down the line, or made to feel emotionally or lawfully guilty, because I'm not, and neither is the woman who was this week criminalised and dehumanised for making exactly the same decision as me. Her abortion will be on her permanent record.
Our stories should never be so disparate. Any woman, wherever she belongs, should not be 'allowed' or not to make choices over what happens to her. But whilst these still laws exist, there are bars on women's bodies. We all need to break them.
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