Sarah Ewart, who was forced to travel to England for a termination in 2013, has now launched a legal bid to change Northern Ireland’s abortion law at Belfast High Court. A version of the following interview was originally published in Stylist’s Woman of the Week column in November 2018.
Sarah Ewart is an unlikely candidate for a figurehead in the Northern Irish abortion rights movement. Softly-spoken with silvery blonde hair, the 28-year-old from Belfast has not even always been pro-choice. Raised in a religious family, she says she was surrounded by a culture in her childhood, teens and early 20s that saw all abortions as “morally wrong”. She shared that view – “I would have said that getting a termination was never acceptable” – until 2013, when she fell pregnant with her first child.
The baby girl was much wanted by Ewart and her husband Jason, who had married earlier that year. But in autumn 2013, the young couple were told that their baby had a fatal condition called anencephaly, which meant that a major part of her brain and skull were missing. She would die either before or shortly after birth.
It was a devastating blow – and it was made even more traumatic by what happened next. Under Northern Ireland’s draconian and punitive abortion law, which has been in place since 1861, terminations are banned even in cases of rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormalities.
As a result, doctors informed Ewart that she had no choice but to continue with the pregnancy until the baby passed away in her womb. She was offered a fortnightly scan, and told that she would be brought in to give birth to her daughter once doctors could no longer detect a heartbeat.
The prospect of having to continue with a pregnancy that was guaranteed to end in tragedy was appalling to Ewart. “We were completely shocked and horrified,” she says.
But when she asked the consultants at the hospital in Belfast about the other options available to her, they clammed up, afraid they could be prosecuted for so much as offering advice about abortions. “Look, if we could help you, we would,” Ewart recalls medical staff telling her. “We just can’t. We’re facing prison if we do.”
Certain that she could not bear to continue with her pregnancy and equally sure that she wouldn’t be able to end it safely and legally in Northern Ireland, Ewart decided to travel to England for a termination. Thousands of other women have made the same journey since: according to the Department of Health, more than 900 women travelled from Northern Ireland to England for abortions in 2017 alone.
For Ewart, the journey was agonising from start to finish. Outside the Belfast clinic where she made arrangements to travel to London, she was accosted by pro-life protesters who told her that she was a murderer, that she would regret her abortion for the rest of her life, that she would end up with a mental illness. “People on the street were stopping and staring at us, just in shock at what was going on,” she says. “I was so embarrassed.”
Her time in the English capital was difficult for other reasons. She had never set foot in London before, and felt overwhelmed at attending a clinic staffed by strangers. She felt strongly that she should be allowed to have the procedure in a hospital, given that she was ending her pregnancy for medical reasons, but that option wasn’t available to her.
“It was a very, very scary time,” she says. “Thankfully I had my mum and my husband with me, but I should have had my whole family circle and friends around me. And that just wasn’t the case.”
Upon returning to Belfast, Ewart decided that she wanted to help change the law, so that other women whose babies are diagnosed with fatal foetal abnormalities do not have to go through the same harrowing experience. With her mother, Jane Christie, she spent several years speaking to more than 100 members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, trying to gather support for a change in the law. When this proved fruitless, thanks largely to the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP’s) opposition to abortion reform, she and her mother joined forces with Amnesty to take the matter to the courts.
It has been a long and arduous journey. In 2015, Belfast’s High Court ruled that Northern Ireland’s abortion legislation breaches Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights in cases of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormalities. But that ruling was overturned in 2017, when the Court of Appeal in Belfast declared that it was up to the Stormont assembly – not the courts – to decide on Northern Ireland’s abortion law.
The issue subsequently went to the UK Supreme Court in June 2018. In a highly unusual move, the majority of Supreme Court judges publicly stated that Northern Ireland’s abortion law does violate the European Convention on Human Rights in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities and sexual crime. However, the Supreme Court was unable to hear the case on a legal technicality, as it was brought by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC), rather than a woman who had personally suffered as a result of the country’s abortion legislation.
Ewart, of course, is one such woman. And she has now put herself on the frontline of the legal battle to liberalise her country’s stance on terminations. In October 2018, she won permission from the Belfast High Court to challenge Northern Ireland’s law in her own name. The case, which began on 30 January 2019, will test whether Northern Ireland’s legislation surrounding abortions in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities are a violation of the UK’s human rights commitments.
If Ewart’s case is successful, Amnesty says Theresa May’s government will be forced to respond. So far, the government in Westminster has resisted calls to act to relax Northern Ireland’s abortion legislation, stating that the issue should be dealt with in Stormont. Having grown up in Belfast, Ewart is conscious of the complex issues that swirl around Westminster getting involved in Northern Irish politics. But, she says, it’s time for UK politicians outside of Northern Ireland to take a stand.
“I’m asking politicians in Westminster to act on this and change the law,” she says. She now has two children – Jacob, four, and Aoife, 18 months – and would like to have more, but she’s afraid that a future pregnancy could end in the same way as her first. And she says she has met other women who “are putting their pregnancies on hold” due to similar fears. “It’s not acceptable. It was five years in October this year that we lost our little girl, and I think it’s just five years too long.”
You often hear pro-choice campaigners explaining that no one is pro-abortion: instead, they are in favour of women being able to make decisions about their own lives and bodies. Ewart agrees. “I’m not saying everybody who finds themselves with fatal foetal abnormalities should go for a termination,” she says, adding that she “completely admires” anyone who can continue with a pregnancy knowing that their baby is going to die.
“But I just felt that I couldn’t; it wasn’t an option for me. And that’s the key word: options need to be there for women.”
Having to leave Northern Ireland to end her pregnancy made the experience “100%” more traumatic, Ewart says. “Finding out that you’re losing a baby is hard enough to take in. But then to be told that nobody can help you and you’re going to have to go somewhere you don’t know…” She trails off.
It’s worth noting that if Ewart’s case does force Westminster to act and terminations are
But there are many other activists, groups and politicians working on a large-scale campaign to liberalise Northern Ireland’s abortion laws more generally. And while Ewart empathises with their goals, she stresses that she is on a mission that is more specific and deeply personal. “I can only speak from my experience, [based] on what I have gone through.”
Ultimately, she wants to see terminations in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities carried out in Northern Irish hospitals. “This is medical,” she says. “This is not political and it’s not a religious fight. This is women’s healthcare.”
The Woman of the Week series ran throughout 2018 and was part of Stylist’s Visible Women campaign, dedicated to raising the profiles of change-making women past and present. See more Visible Women stories here.
This article was first published on 5 November 2018 and has been updated to reflect the launch of Ewart’s High Court case in January 2019.