Northern Ireland’s abortion law: free access to terminations across the sea is not enough
Scotland is now giving free access to abortion services to women from Northern Ireland, where the termination of pregnancy is legally allowed only if a woman’s life is at risk or if there is a permanent or serious danger to her physical or mental health, and remains illegal even in case of foetal abnormalities, rape or incest.
In June 2017, after a ten-year campaign to allow women in Northern Ireland to access terminations, the government in Westminster decided that they would no longer be charged for abortions received in England, where the law is much less restrictive. More than 50 MPs backed the Labour-led call for justice for Northern Irish women.
In a written statement, Justine Greening, Secretary of State for Education and Minister for Women and Equalities, specified that Northern Irish women seeking medical treatment in England will be eligible for: a consultation with an abortion provider in England; the abortion procedure; HIV or sexually transmitted infection testing if needed; an offer of contraception from the abortion provider; and support with travel costs if the woman meets financial hardship criteria. From 2018, Northern Irish women will have the right to access free abortion services in England too, and they will benefit from a central telephone booking system, which will make it easier to arrange an appointment with a healthcare professional in England.
Before this decision was made, Northern Irish women were charged about £900 to get an abortion in England, Wales or Scotland, which meant the exclusion of many women who could not afford to pay for it. The phenomenon has been particularly widespread: according to the Family Planning Association, abortions performed in England to residents of Northern Ireland were 837 only in 2014.
However, even if the decision represents a positive effort to mitigate the discrimination against Northern Irish women, it cannot be considered a step forward in the much-needed repeal of the outdated abortion law. The British Pregnancy Advisory Service, an organisation that supports abortion rights, described the Westminster’s decision as a ‘landmark moment’, but added that this was not the solution to the gross injustice that denies Northern Irish women access to abortion care at home. In an interview for the BBC, Sarah Ewart pointed out that framing the discourse of abortion only on a financial level is a deceptive approach. Ewart was forced to leave Northern Ireland to terminate her pregnancy after doctors told her that her baby would not survive. She realised then that she needed to make her voice heard and has campaigned ever since to change the law on abortion. She commented that, although it is a positive news that now Northern Irish women will have the chance to access free services through the NHS in the rest of the country, it means that women would still need to travel away from home, away from their family and their community, adding emotional distress to an already difficult experience.
The Northern Ireland’s abortion law was drawn up in 1861 and has not been updated ever since. Britain’s Abortion Act (1967) does not extend to Northern Ireland, where abortion continues to be illegal in most cases, with detrimental consequences to women’s health (Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women). Women face life imprisonment for seeking abortion, even if they have been raped or the foetus has no chance to survive. Furthermore, doctors and medical professionals who agree to carry out an unlawful abortion could be jailed for life. Ewart described the climate in which doctors are forced to operate because of these punitive guidelines: when she inquired if and where she might have to go to seek a termination, they told her they were unable to release any information about where to get help and that they did not want to go to prison for anyone for this reason. Ewart’s experience is symptomatic of the common procedure women in Northern Ireland have to face. In this scenario, it is unlikely that the problem of the restrictive abortion law will be solved by securing grants for women who seek terminations.
The lack of neutral information and sex education, and the high criminalisation and stigmatisation of abortion has affected vulnerable young people, leaving them unable to make informed decisions. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women repeatedly urged the state party to improve the availability and affordability of sexual and reproductive health services, as well as family planning information and services. It recommended the adoption of measures to increase knowledge of, and access to, affordable contraceptive methods, and recommended to promote sex education for adolescent girls and boys. The Committee has also reiterated its call to initiate a process of public consultation in Northern Ireland on the abortion law, and to give consideration to the amendment of the law, removing its punitive provisions. The restrictive legislation was criticised by both the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Committee on the Rights of the Child in July 2017.
The Supreme Court was recently asked to scrutinise Northern Ireland’s abortion laws. Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) is arguing that not allowing abortion in cases of rape, incest, or serious foetal anomaly is in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights because it discriminates women and girls on the grounds of gender and amounts to an “unjustified” breach of their personal right to autonomy. In an interview for The Guardian, Les Allamby, chief commissioner of the NIHRC, recognises how difficult it might be for a woman or girl to challenge the law, and this is the reason why the NIHRC has taken the case in its own name. He explained that an independent working group of the United Nations have provided evidence to the court with many others that have shared their own experiences.
The Independent reports that Healthcare charities and women’s rights organisations, including the Family Planning Association (FPA), the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (Bpas) and Birthrights have all intervened and argued that the current legal framework in Northern Ireland amounts to inhumane and degrading treatment of women in need of abortion care. Amnesty International UK is one of the main groups supporting this challenge. Ewart has been working with Amnesty International UK, and together they are asking for a broader reform of the abortion legislation in Northern Ireland.
A poll conducted by the independent research company Millward Brown Ulster, collected the views of 1000 people across Northern Ireland. The research shows that the majority of people in Northern Ireland don’t think that abortion should be a crime at all (58 per cent), and almost the 70 per cent of people interviewed believe women should not be imprisoned for an abortion when they are pregnant as a result of rape or incest, or if the foetus has no chance of survival.
Northern Ireland’s abortion law has the harshest criminal penalty for abortion in Europe and it is one of the most restrictive legislations in the world. Even if Northern Irish women’s journey across the Irish Sea will be financially more accessible then it has been, a structural evolution of the law needs to be discussed. This change is requested not only by international treaty bodies and organisations, but also by Northern Irish people, as demonstrated by civil society engagement against the ban on abortion. ‘I do have a sense that things are changing. Before people wouldn’t have even talked about it. Me speaking out has made the public understand that there are more reasons why you might need an abortion,’ Ewart said in an interview back in 2016. Positive changes have been made, but they are still not enough, and this makes raising awareness on the reproductive rights of Northern Irish women even more relevant.