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Northern Ireland abortion law: A Marie Stopes nurse on helping women access abortions

Abortion in Northern Ireland has finally be decriminalised. Here, Alexandra Nommay, a nurse working in Marie Stopes UK’s Manchester centre, shares heartbreaking stories of the ‘silent and scared’ patients she has cared for, after they were forced to travel to England for abortions. 

The 22 October 2019 will go down in history as one of the most important days in reproductive rights for women in the UK.

After decades of inspirational campaigning and advocacy from pro-choice groups, human rights charities, abortion care providers and healthcare practitioners, people in Northern Ireland will see the decriminalisation of abortion care in their country after being torturously subjected to one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world.

In the absence of a Northern Ireland Assembly, Westminster finally stepped in to make good on their human rights obligations, and from 22 October women and pregnant people in Northern Ireland will no longer be second-class citizens when it comes to their reproductive rights. 

Northern Ireland abortion law protest
Abortion in Northern Ireland decriminalised: people have been protesting against the ban on abortion in Northern Ireland for years.

I’m a registered nurse and safeguarding lead at Marie Stopes UK’s Manchester centre, where I care for those accessing abortion services. Last year, more than 1,000 Northern Irish women made journeys to abortion care clinics like mine in England. I am proud to have supported those who made the long journey to Manchester, which was one of the easier English cities for Northern Ireland residents to travel to. But I have seen how the prospect and practicalities of such a long journey affected their mental wellbeing.

I have seen too many Northern Irish women break down in tears because of the stress of travelling.

I have seen too many Northern Irish women whose pregnancies would never have survived outside the womb, but who were too scared to ask about abortion care in Northern Ireland, because they thought they might be refused treatment, or potentially even prosecuted.  

I have seen too many Northern Irish women who have faced abuse from relatives and friends for having an abortion, when they have had no choice but to tell them in order to arrange childcare while they are away.

I have seen too many Northern Irish women who have received hurtful comments from their doctors and other health professionals at home when they have mentioned that they were considering abortion or when trying to get aftercare advice. 

I have seen too many Northern Irish women struggle to cover the cost of travel to a clinic in England. And prior to 2018, when Northern Ireland residents became able to access government funded care at our clinics in England, I saw too many struggle to cover the costs of private care.

abortion law northern ireland terminate pregnancy
Abortion in Northern Ireland decriminalised: "I have seen too many Northern Irish women who had never previously travelled outside of Northern Ireland and have had to make this, their first journey to England, alone."

I have seen too many Northern Irish women struggle to get time off work, because disclosing the reason would risk stigma from their employer or colleagues.

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I have seen too many Northern Irish women who had never previously travelled outside of Northern Ireland and have had to make this, their first journey to England, alone.

And perhaps worst of all, I have heard of so many Northern Irish women who were unable to make the journey to a clinic in England at all because of financial difficulties, work commitments, childcare needs, disability, domestic violence, or their immigration or refugee status. 

It is undeniable that the restrictive law that forced women to travel for care impacted their treatment options, and any follow up care that was needed. It breaks my heart that Northern Irish women who visited our Manchester centre often expected to be judged and mistreated as many had been at home, and then were surprised by the compassion they’re treated with in our clinics. No country should allow laws that create mistrust between women and their healthcare providers.

The exportation of Northern Irish women looking for abortion services may have allowed abortion care to be out of sight, out of mind for the Northern Irish government and authorities but travelling to England has had real ramifications for all our Northern Irish clients. The restrictive law forced women to travel, and the stigma of travelling forced them to stay silent and lie to those closest to them. For so long, many Northern Irish women have not been able to confide in a friend or family member to ask them to accompany them to England. 

This decriminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland is such an important step towards reproductive justice, but the damage caused by such a restrictive environment for reproductive healthcare will take decades to undo.

It has been a privilege to care for Northern Irish women when they needed my support, but soon I hope that support will no longer be necessary because the care will exist in their home country. We are looking towards a time when abortion care in Northern Ireland will be regulated in the same way as any other type of healthcare and not held hostage within a criminal framework. 

Access to abortion care in Northern Ireland will be established in the coming year, and the chilling effect on healthcare providers feeling unable to talk to their patients about abortion options or aftercare due to the stigma of criminality will begin to thaw. When women and pregnant people in Northern Ireland finally have the legal right to care, and access to that care where they live, then the healing can begin. 

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If you, or anyone you know, needs support and advice about abortion, you can visit the Marie Stopes website here

Images: Getty, Unsplash

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