No one left behind - Now is the time for abortion access for Northern Ireland

Alliance For Choice  campaign outside Belfast City Hall

Alliance For Choice campaign outside Belfast City Hall

This blog is one of a series of perspectives written by members of London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign to mark the first anniversary of the Repeal of the Eighth Amendment. Read the rest here.

Northern Ireland is now the only part of the UK and Ireland where abortion is almost completely illegal. This is a phrase you will have heard activists say countless times over the last year since the eighth amendment was successfully repealed. There is no underestimating how huge the impact has been in Northern Ireland - and now there’s no letting either the Irish or British governments forget it.

I joined the London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign around the summer of 2017, and one of the first things I did as a volunteer was write a blog arguing that politicians in Northern Ireland don’t reflect how their constituents feel about abortion. More than two years on from the collapse of power-sharing, we are still without the representation that would make abortion legal and accessible. In November 2018, Amnesty International published a survey which showed that support for change in the law was at an all-time high. 65% of adults surveyed in Northern Ireland believe abortion doesn’t belong in criminal law - and yet that is not a position taken by any of the main parties. As with marriage equality, people in Northern Ireland are told to wait yet again for rights available in the rest of the UK and Ireland.

In the past year, there have been important milestones towards change in Northern Ireland:

  • the UN CEDAW committee has repeatedly reminded the UK government of its responsibilities regarding human rights in Northern Ireland;

  • UK politicians such as Stella Creasy and Diana Johnson have tabled bills which have put pressure on the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and have proposed the repeal sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 and the effective UK-wide decriminalisation of abortion; and

  • prior to the referendum, the pressure coming from the campaign in Ireland led to the Women and Equalities minister ensuring abortions would be paid for from their budget when women from Northern Ireland travel to England.

As with the Repeal campaign, those affected continue to tell their personal stories in order to change hearts and minds. While the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission lost its case in the UK Supreme Court - where it had argued that the the law in Northern Ireland is incompatible with human rights in cases of FFA and sexual crime - because it was found not to have standing, a majority of judges did say that the law in Northern Ireland was incompatible with human rights law.  And so, the incredible Sarah Ewart is continuing her challenge in the High Court in Belfast. Yet again, a woman must retell of losing a baby to anencephaly, and the indignity and added trauma of having to travel to England for healthcare that ought to have been available to her at home, in order to force the hands of those in power to make a change. In Her Shoes continue to document stories anonymously, that those outside Northern Ireland may see the real and devastating affects of restricting abortion access.

Some things remain the same on both sides of the border. For trans men and non-binary people, for migrants and those in direct provision, and for people on lower incomes, access remains difficult. On any given day, four women will travel from Northern Ireland to England to access an abortion. After the repeal of the eighth, we hoped for an end to travel for women from the Republic, but unnecessary waiting periods, access issues and a window of only 12 weeks to access abortion mean that women are still travelling rather than going through the cumbersome system at home.

While the Together for Yes campaign is over, the individual groups, networks, support and shared resources remain. The commitment of people from Northern Ireland to repealing the eighth amendment in the Republic is being paid back. From here in London, we continue to look to Alliance for Choice in Belfast and Derry to amplify their campaign. We’ve been so glad to see new members every month at our meetings who understand the need to keep hold of that momentum. On the anniversary of the repeal of the eighth amendment, it should serve as a reminder of all we have achieved, and as a driver for all that’s left to do.

Katherine Nesbitt is a member of London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign.

We’ll be gathering to mark the first year since we Repealed the Eighth Amendment on Saturday May 25th. Join us.

Hannah Little