International Safe Abortion Day: It's time to normalise abortion

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Today marks International Safe Abortion Day, but for women in Northern Ireland accessing safe and legal terminations is still a distant reality, writes Marguerite Regan.

Given the seismic increase in discussions around abortion in the last few years you might assume International Safe Abortion Day is a new thing. But it was first marked as a day of action for the decriminalisation of abortion in Latin America and the Caribbean back in 1990.

Since then it has grown as a global day of action year on year. The focus for 2018 is on normalising abortion and accepting “it’s part of our lives”.

It feels timely. Last week Ireland’s President Michael D. Higgins signed an act repealing the country’s constitutional ban on abortion, a key step in making terminations legally available.

This weekend also sees the annual March for Choice in Dublin. Campaigners, buoyed by May’s landslide referendum win, are advocating for new abortion services to be “free, safe and legal”.

There is also a renewed focus on decriminalising abortion in Northern Ireland, where women* currently face up to life in jail for procuring a termination.

Calling for “safe” abortions was an integral part of the campaign to Repeal the 8th and continues to be a key ask in the fight for abortion reform in Northern Ireland.

According to the World Health Organisation, any woman with an unwanted pregnancy who cannot access a safe abortion is at risk of an unsafe abortion. Barriers to access include restrictive laws, poor availability of services and stigma.

Like many other common medical procedures, abortion is safe providing it’s carried out within recommended medical guidelines. But when women and girls cannot access abortion services, locally or at all, this can have serious consequences for their own health and that of their families.

It can lead to women having to travel long distances, using a safe but illegal method such as buying abortion pills online, resorting to other less safe methods or continuing an unwanted pregnancy.

For those who do procure an abortion, as with all medical procedures, a small number may require treatment for complications. Some of these women may be hesitant to seek help for justifiable fear of prosecution.

‘A normal part of life’

The main barrier to safe abortion in Northern Ireland is the Offences Against the Persons Act, an archaic piece of legislation that dates back to 1861. Under this law, abortion is illegal in almost all circumstances in, even in cases of rape or fatal foetal abnormalities. It will soon become the only place in the British Isles where this is the case.

Although women in Northern Ireland can now have abortions funded in other parts of the UK, this still requires them to travel long distances. This is of course not feasible for everyone, such as those with disabilities who may have extra needs, or those with precarious legal status such as asylum seekers.

There are also indirect costs to having to travel for abortion services, such as taking time off work and childcare for other children. Worrying anecdotal evidence from the Abortion Support Network suggests that some women in Northern Ireland are not even aware of the new funding arrangement.

For those who cannot travel to other parts of the UK, legalising abortion takes it from a clandestine procedure carried out without support, to one preformed under safe conditions or with support from medical professionals.  

Every week 70 women travel from Ireland and 28 women from Northern Ireland to access abortions in England and Wales. It is a normal part of life. It is a normal part of healthcare.

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So today, on International Safe Abortion Day, we call on the Irish government to ensure new legislation is put in place without delay, which allows for free, safe and legal abortions for the women of Ireland.

We also urge the UK government to rescind the archaic anti-abortion law in place in Northern Ireland. We’re asking our supporters to write to the Minister for Equalities, Penny Mordaunt to urge her to support the repeal of Sections 58 and 59 of the Offence Against the Person Act, which would decriminalise abortion across the UK, including in Northern Ireland.

We believe abortion law must be brought in to line with human rights standards, because all women have a right to life and health.

*women, trans and non-binary

Hannah Little