The rest of the UK finds it easy to forget that abortion is still outlawed in Northern Ireland. But the campaign for reproductive rights is far from over – and Northern Irish women won’t give up.
Living in the UK, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Brexit was the only important thing happening in the world right now. The B-word dominates news reports and comedy panel shows and social media and conversations in the pub, and generally sucks up all of the available political airtime.
But while we’re attempting to keep track of the results of Theresa May’s trips to Brussels and trying to interpret Labour’s shifting stance on a second referendum, other vital political issues are being left to languish on the back burner. Last autumn, it seemed as if the government might finally be pushed to act on the issue of reproductive rights for women in Northern Ireland, where abortion is banned even in cases of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormality, and women are prosecuted for taking or sourcing abortion pills that are legal in every other part of the UK.
In September, a group of Conservative MPs travelled to Belfast to discuss abortion reform with Northern Irish women, politicians, doctors and lawyers. A month later, MPs from across the political spectrum voted in favour of decriminalising terminations in Northern Ireland. While the MPs’ vote couldn’t compel the government to act, it did heap more pressure on the Prime Minister to give women in Northern Ireland the same access to safe, legal abortions as women everywhere else in the UK.
And then… nothing. May stuck to her preferred strategy of simultaneously digging her heels in and looking the other way, and the world’s attention moved on. The Prime Minister says she believes women should be able to access safe, legal terminations, but she also relies on the support of Northern Ireland’s ultra-conservative DUP for political survival. And their fervent opposition to abortion seems to underpin her reluctance to act on this issue.
The government’s official line is that Northern Irish lawmakers, not Number 10, should decide whether to lift the country’s near-total ban on abortion. But as Northern Ireland has been without a functioning devolved government for over a year now – the result of a dispute between the DUP and opposition party Sinn Fein, with whom they’re supposed to share power – this seems rather like choosing to let an entire nation’s women suffer while politicians squabble above their heads.
Crucially, though, Northern Ireland’s women are refusing to give up the fight. Former Stylist Woman of the Week Sarah Ewart is currently challenging the country’s abortion laws at Belfast High Court, on the grounds that the ban on terminations in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities represents a breach of women’s human rights. And on 26 February, 28 women – including stars of Channel 4’s Northern Irish comedy Derry Girls – delivered a 62,000-strong petition to Westminster, calling for abortion rights to be extended to Northern Ireland.
The number 28 is significant, as it symbolises the number of people who leave Northern Ireland for England and Wales each week to have an abortion. Overall, more than 900 women travelled from Northern Ireland to England for abortions in 2017, according to the Department of Health, and many Northern Irish women also resort to ordering illegal abortion pills online.
“It’s almost unbelievable that women in Northern Ireland are still being persecuted by a Victorian-era abortion ban,” said Nicola Coughlan, who plays Clare Devlin in Derry Girls. She was referring to sections 58 and 59 of the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, a law that made abortion illegal across the UK in the 19th century but which still applies in Northern Ireland.
The group of women – who also included MPs Diana Johnson, Heidi Allen, Karin Smyth, Christine Jardine and Stella Creasy, as well as representatives from Amnesty UK and abortion rights groups – carried their petitions in suitcases, recreating a now-famous image that went viral ahead of the Republic of Ireland’s abortion referendum last year. The photo was taken by Alastair Moore in 2016 at a demonstration outside the Irish embassy in London, where protesters marched with luggage to represent the women forced to leave Ireland for abortions.
Siobhan McSweeney, who plays Derry Girls’ Sister Michael, said she was marching “for our sisters in the North who have been forced to suffer under one of the most oppressive and severe abortion laws in the world for far too long. It’s 2019, yet women in Northern Ireland still face restrictions on their reproductive rights that women across the rest of the UK and Ireland do not. It’s our time for change.”
Theresa May’s government might hope that it can kick the issue of abortion rights for women in Northern Ireland down the garden path. It might want Northern Irish lawmakers to iron out their differences and restore a functioning devolved government, so that they can deal with the issue.
But yesterday’s protest inspires hope that the government won’t be able to ignore this issue for much longer. Nearly two-thirds of the Northern Irish public and more than three-quarters of the UK overall now support the decriminalisation of abortion – and the women at the forefront of the Northern Irish reproductive rights movement aren’t going to give up now.
“During the Repeal movement in Ireland last year we had so much support,” Coughlan said. “Now it’s time to use the momentum from that to help change things for the North.”
That change is going to come – it’s just a question of when.
To sign Amnesty UK’s petition to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland demanding that abortion is decriminalised, click here.
Images: Amnesty UK / Getty Images