Northern Ireland’s abortion time warp

8 Mins read

2017 marks the 50th anniversary of abortions becoming legal throughout most of Britain.

Except in Northern Ireland where women are still legally prevented from accessing NHS abortion services that their peers in England, Scotland and Wales can use.

This situation has been described by Amnesty International as a “postcode lottery” that leaves women unable to afford travel costs in a tough situation.

In a country that has been marred by religious divides throughout its history, this topic has caused a split between both devout Christian opponents and pro-choice human rights campaigners.

This has been caused by the country’s assembly, located in Belfast’s Stormont Buildings, who maintain a near blanket ban on abortions, which even prevents victims of rape, incest or fatal abnormalities from accessing terminations.

Across the rest of Britain, abortions have been legal and free of charge since the 1967 Abortion Act. Though, this has never been extended to Northern Ireland as politicians in its devolved parliament have continuously voiced opposition to the legislation.

On the one hand prominent members from both Catholic and Protestant based political sides have voiced staunch opposition to any changes in laws dating back to 1861.

This opposition has been fronted by several senior politicians with the country’s former health minister Jim Wells being an important voice in the dispute to preserve Northern Ireland’s strict laws.

[pullquote]“The politicians are definitely behind the people of Northern Ireland in terms of understanding human rights and equality.”[/pullquote]In 2012, two years before becoming health minister, Wells came in for criticism from pro-choice campaigners after telling a local radio station that he believed abortions should be banned even for women who had been the victims of rape.

Wells is a member of the Democratic Unionist Party, who are known for their conservative and religiously based politics, and are Northern Ireland’s largest political party.

The DUP, as they are more commonly known, have been under pressure from pro-choice activist groups in recent years for their strong opposition to abortions.

This message has been echoed by their leader, and Northern Ireland First Minister, Arlene Foster who, upon becoming the country’s first ever female leader in January 2016, told The Guardian that she intends to keep strict abortion laws in place.

Foster’s comments came shortly after a high court ruling said Northern Ireland’s current abortion laws are “incompatible” with both European and Human Rights legislation.

But it is not just Foster who continues to support this heavily-criticised system as in February 2016 the country’s assembly voted against legalising abortions for women suffering from fatal foetal abnormality.

This condition refers to situations where a baby suffers from a serious syndrome that will more than likely cause death before or shortly after its birth.

As this leaves affected women in a mentally draining situation, it played a significant role in the decision making process behind Belfast High Court’s ruling of current laws breaching human rights.

A woman walks past one of Belfast's many pieces of pro-choice artwork (Photo: James Cropper)

A woman walks past one of Belfast’s many pieces of pro-choice artwork [James Cropper]

The mental strain on women suffering from these conditions has been a keenly discussed theme for human rights campaigners who have been pressing for free on-demand abortion services for any woman in the country.

Campaigning has been led by several groups with Amnesty International’s Northern Irish branch describing the country’s current abortion laws as “Victorian” and “from a time before the invention of the lightbulb”.

This was something highlighted by Emma Campbell, member of well-known pro-abortion campaigning group Alliance For Choice, who told Artefact: “We all know how the DUP and Stormont works, it’s not a very mature democracy”.

“The politicians are definitely behind the people of Northern Ireland in terms of understanding human rights and equality,” she added.

A major factor within Northern Ireland’s pro-choice movement has been the difficulty faced by women who are not in a comfortable financial position.

This issue received worldwide attention amongst Human Rights campaigners recently after a Northern Irish woman was handed a three-month suspended sentence for her use of self-inducing abortion pills.

The pills, which the woman used because she couldn’t afford to travel to England, allow women to undergo self-induced abortions and have been used in Northern Ireland to bypass the country’s laws in recent years.

Yet, by taking these pills, women are technically in violation of the UK’s Offences against the Person Act, 1861, which can result in life imprisonment.

This case promoted backlash from pro-choice campaigners who say that it highlights a major issue of how women from lower socio-economic backgrounds are often unable to afford travel to other parts of the UK.

While strong anti-abortion sentiments remain prevalent amongst Northern Ireland’s main political players, the country’s public appear to hold contrasting views that are more in line with their contemporaries in the rest of Britain.

Nearly a year after Belfast high court’s ruled the country’s laws as being in breach of human rights in, Amnesty International released a poll that they claimed showed 72 per cent of Northern Ireland’s population supported more lenient laws on abortion.

In response to the poll, pro-life campaigner Adrianne Peltz said: “People who think women should be denied abortions are in a small and ever-decreasing minority. Only one in six people agree with the status quo for abortion laws.”

“If the law was changed in line with the overwhelming wishes of the public, we would no longer force women, who have been raped or been given a fatal diagnosis for their pregnancy, onto planes to England and away from their families and medical carers,” she added.

An unexpected aspect of this poll was that it discovered 73 per cent of DUP party members supported abortion services being decriminalised in the country, which contradicts the stance of its elected politicians and Northern Ireland’s first minister.

The organisation also brought a 45,000 strong petition to Northern Ireland’s parliament building in Stormont where they called on politicians to bring abortion laws in line with other UK regions.

Abortion Rights Now graffiti seen in Belfast (Photo: James Cropper)

Abortion Rights Now graffiti seen in Belfast [James Cropper]

However, former health minister Jim Wells set up his own petition urging the country’s government to uphold strict legislation, and the DUP politician, alongside pro-life campaigners, presented their 300,000 strong petition on the same steps as Amnesty did just a week earlier.

On the steps of parliament building, Wells told local media that he was “absolutely convinced the people of Northern Ireland do not want that law to extend to this part of the United Kingdom.”

The support for Well’s petition indicates that staunch anti-abortion views are still prevalent throughout Northern Irish society, which is generally synonymous with strict religious ties.

If accurate, it also represents six per cent of Northern Ireland’s current population of 1.8 million, which is a notable total for such a petition.

When asked about this apparent strong support for abortion laws to be maintained in Northern Ireland Emma Campbell from Alliance for Choice suggested that everything in Well’s poll isn’t as it seems.

“The very same boxes of petitions have been arriving in Stormont for the past eight years, it’s not a regulated source, there’s no evidence base, there’s no peer review.

The petition was also fronted by pro-life activist group Precious Life who are widely known for their strong religious position on abortions that consider any termination after conception as part of a “silent holocaust”.

This strong rhetoric is represented by Bernadette Smyth, a regular media voice for pro-life activists who has proclaimed extreme opposition to a recent report that claimed 55 per cent of NI citizens supported abortion laws being relaxed.

Opponents of Northern Ireland's strict abortion laws have often cited that women who cannot afford travel risk being left in an alienated position (Photo: James Cropper)

Opponents of Northern Ireland’s strict abortion laws have often cited that women who cannot afford travel risk being left in an alienated position [James Cropper]

The activist group even staged an “empty manger” protest before Christmas, which they said “represented the emptiness left behind by an abortion”.

Smyth’s controversial persona was also heightened when she was convicted of harassing a former politician for her pro-abortion views.

Dawn Purvis had been working in a Belfast-based health clinic that offers rare abortions in Northern Ireland if they are deemed as exceptional circumstances

After her conviction, Smyth was told by a judge that “this case was run, no-holds barred, in a vicious and malicious fashion.”

Smyth’s conviction shows how the country’s abortion debate has at times turned extremely dirty as strong religious views clash with human rights campaigners.

Smyth later had her conviction overturned.

As Northern Ireland is run by a devolved government it has the power to implement its own laws. However, due to the country’s troubled history, its government is required to be led by both a First and Deputy minister who are taken from the two main political parties.

[pullquote]“We need to help the women who wish to seek a termination in these circumstances and we need to help them now.”[/pullquote]Despite having titles that indicate one position being higher than the other, both two leaders maintain equal powers.

This has most recently seen the leader of the DUP, a pro-British unionist party, Arlene Foster being First Minister and Martin McGuiness from the pro-independence party Sinn Féin as Deputy-first minister.

But the country’s fragile power-sharing has recently been rocked by a political crisis that resulted in McGuinness resigned from his position as deputy-first minister.

Due to the country’s complex power sharing system, McGuinness’ resignation has forced snap elections to be called that could result in Arlene Foster losing her position as Northern Ireland first minister.

This is where the issue of abortion gets stuck, because for any amendments in law to be made it would require support from both sides of the political spectrum, which are fronted by traditionally religious-minded individuals.

With the recent political turmoil in Northern Ireland leaving an election looming, or even a return to direct rule from Westminster, arguments on both sides of the abortion divide will be frustratingly put on hold.

Even so, as no legislation can be passed until the country elects a new government, human rights campaigners may be the most frustrated of both groups.

The Future?

Like many other issues in Northern Irish politics this topic has turned into an argument of how to move the country forward in line with its British counterparts.

So, fifty years after most of Britain legalised abortion what position could Northern Irish women be in come the end of 2017?

Pro-choice campaigners have reason to be optimistic that progress may be made, albeit slowly, by the country’s current health minister Michelle O’Neill who last year set up a working group aimed at assisting women affected by fatal foetal abnormality.

The working group is due to publish its findings in the comings weeks after investigating whether Northern Ireland’s abortion laws are currently in line with contemporary legal systems alongside an assessment of the situations that they leave women in.

A new bill was recently raised by former Northern Irish justice minister David Ford that aimed to legalise abortions for women suffering from the condition. Nonetheless, the bill has since fallen through, something that was celebrated by Precious Life.

Ford, who recently stood down as leader of Northern Ireland’s centrist Alliance party, said: “This is not about disability, it is solely concerned with situations where a foetus cannot survive.”

“We know the desire is there in Northern Ireland for change to the law. We need to help the women who wish to seek a termination in these circumstances and we need to help them now,” he added.

There has also been talk that Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon is considering an offer to provide Northern Irish women with free abortions Scottish NHS hospitals, which would be different from other NHS hospitals outside of the country who refuse women free services.

Although, while welcoming the attempts of politicians at both home and other countries, local pro-choice campaigners told Artefact that it is simply not enough to enforce real change to the country’s legalisation.

Nicola Sturgeon’s announcement was obviously incredibly welcomed but at the same time it should have made our government embarrassed that someone else in another jurisdiction was having to step in and help with healthcare because they can’t provide it,” they told us.

This cautious optimism has been the result of a history of potential progress being dented by Northern Irish politicians who have continuously voted down any real attempt to change strict legislation.

But, with strong evidence that the Northern Irish public are behind abortion legalisation change and high court rulings condemning the Stormont government’s status quo on the issue, 2017 marks an important year for this debate.

The optimism amongst pro-choice campaigners will have to remain contained, until Northern Irish politicians find a solution to their current crisis, no real legislation can be passed until a new government is in place.

Whether the new government sticks to traditionally strict religious beliefs on abortion or follow an apparent public majority is for 2017 to see.

What remains certain though is that the country is still lagging 50 years behind the rest of Britain, something that its majority party the DUP remains such a keen advocate of.



All images by James Cropper

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