Your body, your choice, right? Wrong. Not for women in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, or, indeed, for 25% of the world’s population who live in countries with “highly restrictive abortion laws”. “Highly restrictive abortion laws”, in this case, it means that abortion is either completely outlawed or only permitted in instances where the mother’s life is in danger. We at LAPP firmly believe in and advocate for a woman’s right to choose but for many women this reality not a reality. In this article, we discuss recent advancements in the fight to legalise abortion in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and also recommend organisations that offer support and more information for those in need. But first, here’s a brief history of the laws and attitudes that have divided so many for so long:
- Under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, abortion is defined as unlawful in Northern Ireland.
- The act was modified in 1945 in Northern Ireland, consequently enacting the Criminal Justice Act which allows abortion only in instances where the mother’s life is at risk.
- The Abortion Act of 1967 established abortion as legal in Great Britain, but has never been applied in Northern Ireland. Although taking drugs to bring on a miscarriage without doctors’ consent is illegal anywhere in the UK, abortion itself is legal up to (and in some cases beyond) the 24-week limit in England, Scotland and Wales.
- Fatal foetal abnormalities, rape and incest are still not instances permitting a legal abortion and although the High Court ruled in 2015 that this was incompatible with the human rights of women, only legislators have the power to change this law.
For women in the Republic of Ireland, the Eighth Amendment of the Irish Constitution (voted in by a referendum in 1983) states that “the state acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.” Thus, in Ireland, the existence of such an amendment views the life of a pregnant women and the life of an embryo or foetus as one and the same – what some have deemed “an unworkable distinction between a pregnant woman’s life and her health.” With this in mind, women are far too often forced to see through a pregnancy that they not only did not want, but are consequently made to feel guilty for not wanting. It is impossible to prioritise the life, well-being and right of choice of an existing human being when the life of an unborn foetus has been unfairly equated to it.
In recent months there have, however, been key advancements in the case for legalising abortion. As recent as January 2018, proposed plans for a Citizens’ Assembly for Northern Ireland (much like the one that currently operates in the Republic of Ireland) are set to be implemented later this year. A group of 99 randomly-selected people from the electoral register will make up the assembly, with the aim of it providing a true and more representative reflection of Northern Irish society. The key objective of this new plan is for the citizens to debate on subjects that politicians oftentimes fail to agree on. Since its creation in the Republic of Ireland, the Dáil (Irish parliament) have asked their assembly to debate and come to conclusions on issues varying from climate change, referendums, fixed-term parliaments and one of huge controversy – abortion. Taking into account the success and potential of this assembly, we can only hope that both countries will come to an ultimate and imperative decision to legalise abortion.
Current restrictions on abortion led to an estimated 4,000 women travelling to England in 2016 to access the treatment and while the UK Government promised in June of 2017 to cover the cost of the women who are being forced to travel from Northern Ireland, very little has actually been done to consolidate the decision and ensure that this promise is carried out. Is this not, then, simply another empty promise, proposed with the aim of temporarily appeasing those who dare to speak out against what is arguably one of the most archaic pieces of legislation to exist in modern-day Europe?
Pro-choice activists are not naive toddlers who can be pacified with “soothing words” from a government who has made negligible progress in ensuring that their basic human rights are respected.
Ireland’s Minister for Health, Simon Harris, has stated that he is in favour of repealing the Eighth Amendment and that plans will hopefully be in place for a referendum to take place in the summer. Perhaps unsurprisingly, no formal decisions have been made and it will still take the passing of numerous political and legislative stages for Ireland’s uncompromising anti-abortion laws to be challenged.
While governments continue to stall over potential liberalisation of the laws, there remains some hope in the inspirational organisations that continue to fight for a woman’s right of choice over what decisions she gets to make over her own body:
- The London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign aims to unite people in London through campaigning for free, safe and legal abortion by fundraising, policy and advocacy, direct action and forming partnerships with other UK-based organisations who can help to build awareness about the issue through media and communication.
- Coalition to Repeal The Eighth Amendment brings together over 100 human rights, feminist and pro-choice organisations, trade unions, health organisations, NGOs and community organisations to help campaign for a referendum that can repeal the Eighth Amendment.
- The Abortion Support Network is a charity that assists women (financially, in confidence and non-judgmentally) who are forced to travel from Ireland, Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man to access abortions.
In the meantime, those of us in England, Scotland and Wales (and throughout the rest of the world) can and must speak up and elevate the voices of the women who suffer at the hands of these outdated laws. By sharing information and key updates from the organisations mentioned (and by using our own platforms), we can all play an essential and far too long overlooked role in campaigning to bring justice to women in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Your body, your choice in the past? Definitely not. But in the not-to-distant future? It’s an absolute yes.
Written by Ella Nevill