On the 22nd of October, 2019, abortion was officially decriminalised in Northern Ireland. Prior to this, the country had one of the most archaic abortion laws in Europe.
You see, when the 1967 Abortion Act became law in the UK, it was not extended to NI. Instead, the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act – a law that predates the invention of the lightbulb – remained in place, making abortion a criminal offense and banning it in all circumstances except for when the mother would die.
People who sought abortions could face life in prison. They could be actively prosecuted for taking abortion pills to end a pregnancy – and they were. In 2016, a 21-year-old woman was given a suspended three-month prison sentence after taking abortion pills she accessed online, while in 2017, a mother who acquired abortion pills for her teenage daughter faced the prospect of a five-year prison sentence, and only had her charges dropped after abortion was decriminalised in October 2019.
In any other region of the UK, these women would have been given the support and healthcare they desperately needed. In Northern Ireland, they were treated as criminals.
Time for change
After decriminalisation, services for abortions were set to begin from the 1st of April, 2020, allowing unconditional terminations up to 12 weeks. However, when the deadline came, health trusts were prevented from carrying out abortions by the Department of Health.
This meant that, even in the midst of a global pandemic when we were all being urged to stay at home, pregnant people were having to take an eight-hour ferry journey to England to access a termination. Why?
The Department of Health cited the coronavirus as the cause of the delay – but many campaigners blamed anti-choice sentiment for being the driving factor. Indeed, it was only when the move attracted international news coverage and the threat of legal action from campaign groups that, on the 9th April, abortion services were finally made available in Northern Ireland, a mere 53 years after the rest of the UK.
Crucially though, this did not include the use of telemedicine. In the wake of Covid-19, with health services inundated due to the pandemic and patients being urged to avoid hospitals wherever possible, the use of telemedicine to access early-stage termination was approved in the UK and Republic of Ireland. To date, it has not been brought into Northern Ireland.
Amid anger over the discrepancy, First Minister Arlene Foster clarified that she was opposed to, “abortion on demand.” This refusal once again leaves pregnant people in Northern Ireland in the position of second-class citizens when it comes to reproductive rights.
If the picture was already concerning, last week, one year on from decriminalisation, Northern Ireland’s Northern Health Trust announced it had been forced to close its abortion facilities. Today, this means that ten out of NI’s 26 health trusts will no longer be able to offer abortion services to patients. Originally, it was thought that patients would be able to transfer to other trusts in Northern Ireland. But with the added pressures of Covid-19, it’s now clear that isn’t possible due to a lack of capacity. This means that a third of our population does not have access to abortion services on their shores and will instead, again, have to travel to England at a time when we are being urged not to travel.
The Department of Health is once again endangering lives by giving those seeking to terminate a pregnancy no other option than an eight-hour ferry ride across the Irish Sea. On hearing the news, Amnesty International’s Grainne Teggart commented: “We now have a postcode lottery for abortion services, where women in one trust area are effectively unable to access early medical abortion healthcare – their only option to buy pills online or put themselves in danger by travelling during a pandemic.”
Frustration and fairness
Since abortion services were established, it has been up to trusts to individually cater to the needs of anyone seeking an abortion, but without any additional funding to cover the cost. The sustainability of these clinics is now precarious, with campaigners urging the health minister Robin Swan to approve the use of telemedicine before more facilities collapse.
So far, the Department of Health has insisted that, after seeking legal advice, it is, “not required to commission the relevant services, however, registered medical professionals in Northern Ireland may now terminate pregnancies lawfully.” Once again, campaigners believe this to be yet another stalling tactic from anti-choice politicians who still refuse to separate church and state.
Even after decriminalisation, it’s hard to ignore the lasting legacy the abortion ban has had when it comes to reproductive health in Northern Ireland. Growing up in an environment where to be pro-choice was often seen as taboo, the effects of this draconian law have been far-reaching.
For me personally, as a woman struggling with the chronic pelvic pain of endometriosis, finding a doctor who believes you or allows your words to carry any weight has often felt impossible. When you are not entrusted with the right to your own bodily autonomy, concerns about intimate pelvic pain are all too easily bundled up within the same sentiment. Perhaps this is why, in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, the average wait for an endometriosis diagnosis is even longer than that of the UK – eight and a half years in the North and nine years in the South.
In a society where talking about sex is also still seen as a taboo, and where sex education in schools remains influenced by abstinence, not knowing how to practise safe sex and having limited choices if you do get pregnant becomes a toxic mix.
Growing up in Belfast during the 00’s, everyone knew someone who had been forced to ‘travel’ – or who had gone through the fear they might have to travel. After abortion was decriminalised and services finally began, it almost felt as if those times were finally going to be relegated to the past.
The next generation was supposed to be the first to no longer have to leave their warm bed behind in secret and travel over the rough Irish Sea to access the healthcare they deserved to have at home. Yet today, the rallying cry of, ‘free, safe, legal and local!’ goes on, whilst politicians shrug their shoulders and deny accountability.
2020 was meant to be the year of bodily autonomy in Northern Ireland. Our year of equality and liberation. And yet, here we are, one year on, and pregnant people are still being left behind. For us, the fight for freedom of choice goes on…