Don't make us beg for our rights - change the law in Northern Ireland now

The landslide win for the Yes campaign in last weekend’s referendum on the Eighth Amendment was a victory for a more compassionate Ireland, and a rallying cry to reform Northern Ireland’s draconian abortion laws, writes Caitlin de Jode.


Campaigners and MLAs at Stormont in 2016.    Photo credit: Alliance for Choice

Campaigners and MLAs at Stormont in 2016.    Photo credit: Alliance for Choice

As someone who’d been working hard on the Yes campaign, it was a pretty emotional moment. I felt grateful that the Irish public had overwhelmingly voted to trust the women of Ireland, relieved that the campaign was finally over, and saddened that the referendum had come too late to help those who had travelled, suffered, and died under the Eighth Amendment. But as a Northern Irish woman, more than anything else, I felt tired, knowing that we have so much further to go. In Northern Ireland, rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormality are not legal grounds for terminating a pregnancy, and the draconian abortion laws see three women a day travel to England or take illegal abortion pills at home - risking up to life in prison.

The result in Ireland showed that public opinion was miles ahead of politicians on the issue of abortion. Irish people firmly believe in allowing women to make their own decisions about whether to end a pregnancy, and that was demonstrated by the outcome of the referendum. The same is true in Northern Ireland - recent polling saw 63% of people agree that it was a woman’s right to choose whether or not to have an abortion. More than 70% believe it should be available in cases of rape, incest, or where there is a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality.  Further polling revealed that just 16% of people in Northern Ireland think the current law is adequate. Yet MLAs have consistently blocked attempts to reform the current law.

There hasn’t been an Assembly sitting in Northern Ireland for over 18 months. Given the ongoing political crisis, and little hope for the restoration of the devolved executive any time soon, it’s clear that politicians at Stormont will not be the architects of reform. The people of Northern Ireland must look elsewhere for change. Maria Miller MP, chair of the Women and Equalities Committee tweeted yesterday in favour of a referendum on abortion in Northern Ireland, a view reflected by many others in Westminster and in the media, but in direct contradiction of the wishes of local campaigners.  Whilst the Republic of Ireland had a constitutional ban on abortion which prohibited any reform without a referendum, this is emphatically not the case in Northern Ireland. A referendum on abortion in Northern Ireland would be divisive, expensive, and wholly unnecessary.

Either Stormont or Westminster could legislate to reform abortion law in Northern Ireland. The Sewel Convention determines that Westminster tends not to legislate on devolved issues without the agreement of the devolved legislature, but legally it retains the power to do so. In February 2018, the UN condemned the Government over its failure to reform the law, saying that the current restrictions on abortion access in Northern Ireland violate numerous rights, including those to health and family life, constitute ‘grave’ and ‘systemic’ violations of women’s rights and may amount to torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.. It is the UK government’s responsibility to uphold human rights across the UK, and with no devolved legislature in Belfast, Theresa May has no excuse not to act - the women of Northern Ireland cannot wait any longer.

Repealing sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act, as recommended by the United Nations, would decriminalise abortion across the UK, removing the risk of prosecution and a possible life sentence for those who take illegal abortion pills bought online. This is crucial for Northern Ireland, where prosecutions are currently ongoing - including of a mother prosecuted for obtaining abortion pills for her 15 year old daughter.

The Republic of Ireland didn’t have a choice about the need to hold a referendum, but we do. Don’t ask Northern Irish people to beg for our human rights on the doorsteps of our neighbours. Don’t ask victims of rape, or families grieving the loss of a wanted pregnancy, to relive their trauma in the hope of winning votes. Don’t force us to reveal personal stories of the difficult and lonely journeys we’ve made to England, to access the healthcare we’re denied at home.

Act now, decriminalise abortion across the United Kingdom, and end the exportation of Northern Irish women.

Hannah Little