Northern Irish women are being ignored by Westminster and we’re sick of it

BY CLAIRE JOHNSON

Fifty years ago this October the 1967 Abortion Act came to pass. However, this piece of legislation – which regulated the provision of abortion in Britain – was never extended to Northern Ireland.

This post originally appeared as an article in i-News on 29th April, 2017.

It means that if you need to end a pregnancy in England, Scotland and Wales – you can do so legally, safely and free of charge on the NHS, providing you meet the medical requirements of two doctors. 

But if you need a termination and live in Northern Ireland you could be jailed for life. There is no exception for rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormalities. 

This glaring inequality is a blatant human rights violation, according to the United Nations. Yet Westminster repeatedly turns a blind eye. 

That’s why the London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign has written to the leaders of the main political parties to remind them of their duty to protect the human rights of all UK citizens – including Northern Irish women – as they prepare their election manifestos. 

As well as facing prison in their own country, women in Northern Ireland are also prevented from accessing NHS-funded abortions in England, Wales or Scotland, despite being UK taxpayers. Instead, they must pay for private treatment on the mainland – and cover travel and accommodation costs. The final bill often tops £2,000. 

Current figures estimate that at least two Northern Irish women per day (over 800 women a year) travel to Britain for an abortion, whilst many others must resort to obtaining illegal abortion pills online. 

On 8 March, International Women’s Day 2017, the Police Service of Northern Ireland carried out a series of raids on homes and offices in Belfast in search of abortion pills (Mifepristone and Misoprostol) and “other instruments of abortion”. 

Since then, a number of further raids have been carried out. These enforcement measures are virtually unknown in the rest of the UK. It is worth noting that these pills are listed on the World Health Organisation’s list of essential medicines for the developing world. 

Three women have been prosecuted for procuring abortions since 2015 under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act. The maximum sentence is life imprisonment or “penal servitude” – a term which clearly illustrates just how archaic this law is. In November 2015, the High Court in Belfast made a formal declaration that Northern Ireland’s abortion laws are incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. 

This issue can no longer be ignored.   

Women in Northern Ireland are UK residents, tax-payers and above all human beings – who deserve the same rights as their English, Scottish and Welsh counterparts. 

Stormont and Westminster have let these women down. Politicians in Northern Ireland have so far disregarded the ruling of the court, the first time that a declaration of incompatibility has been ignored by a UK legislature. 

Our letter, sent to the leaders of Labour, the Conservatives, the Greens, the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National Party and the Women’s Equality Party – serves to act as a reminder of what is happening on our shores. 

It reads: "This election is an opportunity to recognise the human rights of women within Northern Ireland; rights that their fellow UK citizens in Scotland, England and Wales have. Therefore, we are calling on your Party to: 

  • Call for the decriminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland, an immediate halt to prosecutions relating to abortion pills and the granting of pardons to those already prosecuted;
  • Put pressure on the Northern Ireland Executive, when it is formed, to legislate to ensure human rights compliance in respect of abortion laws; 
  • Advocate, as a strictly interim measure, that Northern Irish women be allowed free access to abortion services on the NHS in England, Scotland and Wales."

This issue can no longer be ignored. Women in Northern Ireland are UK residents, tax-payers and above all human beings – who deserve the same rights as their English, Scottish and Welsh counterparts. 

Theresa May says the UK is the ‘Greatest Family of Nations in the World’. Well, the time has come to stop treating Northern Irish women as the poor relations.