We should be appalled by the assault on reproductive rights in the US. But it’s vital that we don’t forget that abortion is still restricted right here in the UK.
Those Handmaid’s Tale outfits don’t look hyperbolic anymore. Two years ago, activists began walking into government buildings across the US, dressed in the heavy red cloaks and white bonnets used to identify women forced to reproduce in Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel. In Ohio, women wearing handmaid costumes staged a silent protest at a hearing of a bill that would ban the state’s most common abortion method. Elaina Ramsey, the executive director of the Ohio Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, told The New York Times that the demonstration was intended to highlight “how women are being disregarded in a conversation being shaped by men legislating women’s bodies”.
Two years on, men in the US are still legislating women’s bodies, and the religious right’s attack on reproductive freedom has escalated from disjointed local battles to all-out war. On 14 May, 25 white men – all Republican members of the Alabama senate – voted to criminalise abortion at any stage of pregnancy, even if that pregnancy was the consequence of rape or incest. Under the terms of the bill, which is yet to come into effect, abortion will only be permissible in Alabama if continuing with a pregnancy poses a serious threat to a woman’s health.
The Alabama news comes hot on the heels of several shocking blows to reproductive rights in other US states. This year alone, over a dozen states have attempted to introduce so-called heartbeat bills, which ban abortion after six weeks of pregnancy (the point at which a foetus’ heartbeat can often be detected in scans). Four states have succeeded in signing these draconian bills into law.
At six weeks, an embryo looks like a baked bean with a tail, and many women have not even realised they’re pregnant: we’re talking about two weeks after a missed period, after all. But that salient fact hasn’t stopped the governors of Georgia, Ohio, Mississippi and Kentucky – all white, male Republicans – approving bills that would punish women and/or medical professionals severely for having or carrying out abortions past six weeks.
In May, Georgia governor Brian Kemp signed a bill into law that would subject women who have abortions past six weeks to life imprisonment or the death penalty. Under the Ohio law, approved in April and slated to go into effect in July, a pregnant 11-year-old rape victim would no longer be able to have an abortion. The Mississippi ban, signed in March and also expected to take effect in July, was instigated by the most male-dominated statehouse in the US.
A federal judge temporarily halted the Kentucky bill after it was signed into law in March, saying that he wanted to hold a hearing into its constitutionality. But legal challenges to six-week bans pose their own problems. Many anti-choice campaigners actively want anti-abortion laws to be challenged in the courts, as that increases the chances of a case bouncing all the way up to the Supreme Court – which is now dominated by Christian conservatives, thanks to Donald Trump.
As a result, if a challenge to a state abortion law ends up in the Supreme Court, it is entirely possible that Roe v Wade – the landmark 1973 Supreme Court ruling that legalised abortion across the US – could be overturned.
I have written before about the British tendency to watch the unfolding of political nightmares in the US with a sort of pitying horror. We’re disgusted by the fact that someone like Brett Kavanaugh could be appointed to the Supreme Court after being credibly accused of sexual assault. We are rightly appalled by the outsized political influence of America’s swaggeringly bigoted religious right. And we’re repelled by the election of Trump, a man who bragged on tape about grabbing women by the genitals and has been accused of sexual misconduct by over a dozen women.
But all too often, our consternation at the treatment of women and people with uteruses in the US is grounded in an unearned sense of moral superiority. It’s easy for feminists in the UK to shudder at Alabama’s blanket ban on abortion or condemn Georgia’s brutal criminalisation of women who terminate pregnancies after six weeks. But while we wring our hands at what’s happening on the other side of the Atlantic, too many of us continue to ignore the violation of reproductive rights that’s happening on our doorstep.
Because there is a place in the UK where restrictions on abortion are more punitive than in any US state: Northern Ireland. Even Alabama’s new law permits abortions if doctors can tell that a foetus wouldn’t survive outside the womb – but in Northern Ireland, it is illegal to end a pregnancy if a foetus has been diagnosed with a fatal abnormality. (Terminations are also banned in Northern Ireland in cases of rape and incest.)
And unlike in Georgia, Ohio and Mississippi, there is no brief window of time during which women are allowed to have abortions in Northern Ireland. Terminations are unlawful at any point in a pregnancy unless a woman’s life, or her mental and/or physical health, is seriously at risk. This exemption is hardly ever granted: in 2016/17, just 13 legal abortions took place across the whole of Northern Ireland.
And the potential punishments for breaking Northern Ireland’s Victorian-era abortion law are severe. Under the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, the maximum sentence for illegally carrying out an abortion is life imprisonment – so according to the letter of the law, a rape victim could be given a longer prison sentence for having an abortion than her rapist. (The 1861 Act is still technically in effect across the UK, but much of it was rendered obsolete in England, Scotland and Wales by the Abortion Act 1967 – legislation that was never extended to Northern Ireland.) In recent years, several women have been prosecuted in Northern Ireland for taking or procuring drugs to induce miscarriage, and police have carried out raids and seizures related to abortion pills.
Pro-choice activists, human rights groups and politicians have been trying to raise awareness of the state of reproductive rights in Northern Ireland for years. Last summer, a majority of judges on the UK Supreme Court agreed that the country’s abortion laws were incompatible with the European convention on human rights. Sarah Ewart, a Northern Irish woman who was forced to travel to England for an abortion in 2013 after her baby was diagnosed with a condition that meant it would not survive outside the womb, is currently challenging the fatal foetal abnormality aspect of the law at Belfast’s High Court.
In Westminster, Labour MPs Stella Creasy and Conor McGinn have attempted – fruitlessly, so far – to table amendments to parliamentary bills that would legalise abortion in Northern Ireland. Even the United Nations has said that Northern Ireland’s abortion laws are in breach of the UK’s international human rights obligations.
Yet Theresa May, a female prime minister who claims to believe in a woman’s right to choose, has steadfastly refused to act. Ostensibly, this is because she believes that a devolved Northern Irish government should decide on Northern Irish laws. But there has not been a functioning Northern Ireland Assembly since January 2017, when a power-sharing agreement between Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) collapsed. Given that May’s precarious government would itself collapse without the support of the DUP, it seems that the PM has chosen political power over extending bodily autonomy to hundreds of thousands of UK citizens.
We should be appalled by the assault on reproductive rights currently being carried out in the US. But we cannot condemn events on the other side of the world without also challenging religious conservatives who seek to control women’s bodies closer to home. Write to your MP, demanding that they support efforts to liberalise Northern Ireland’s abortion law. Provide financial support to organisations like Alliance for Choice, the Abortion Rights Campaign, Room for Rebellion and the Abortion Support Network, all of which do vital work supporting reproductive rights in Northern Ireland.
Most importantly of all, be clear-eyed about the state of abortion laws in the UK. The anti-women bills in the US have the shock of the new. But old laws in place in Northern Ireland are just as scandalous.
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