The result of the Republic of Ireland’s referendum signalled a historic shift in the rights of women. After weeks of a hard-fought campaign, and years of activism by others, Ireland has finally allowed women to make their own decisions. Whilst we should rightly celebrate this momentous victory, the tragic fact remains that, in the North, women are still without a choice.
The law in Northern Ireland is far stricter than in the rest of the UK. Abortion remains illegal in nearly all circumstances, including in cases of rape, incest, and fatal foetal abnormalities. Only in cases where the mother’s life is at risk, or where there is serious risk to her mental or physical health, will an abortion be permitted. The current position has come under repeated criticism with the High Court and the United Nations separately declaring that the situation is incompatible with a woman’s fundamental human rights. The UN’s committee found that there are “systematic violations of rights through [women] being compelled to either travel outside Northern Ireland to procure a legal abortion or to carry their pregnancy to term”.
According to the two largest abortion providers in England, some 553 Northern Irish women had terminations in England in the 8-months leading up to March. This marks a 14 per cent increase on the year before. These women are forced to travel, often alone, to make such a difficult decision. Hundreds of other women, who for whatever reason cannot travel, are forced to take illegal and unsafe abortion pills, risking imprisonment. The appalling consequences of the law can be seen in the case of one 19-year old woman, who didn’t have the money to travel for a termination, who bought drugs on the internet to induce a miscarriage. Her housemates then reported her to the police. It resulted in the woman being given a suspended sentence at Belfast Crown Court. Not only did she have to endure having to take the risk of an unsafe abortion, she was convicted for taking a decision that most women in the developed world take as a fundamental right.
In Northern Ireland, the position is made difficult by the ultra-conservative attitudes of the Catholic Church and Evangelical Protestants. The intense religious fervour over abortion rights has made having a reasoned debate seemingly impossible. The scale of the struggle can be seen in that the Assembly, in 2016, voted by 59 to 40 not to allow abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities and by a wider margin refusing the right in cases of rape or incest. Similar problems have held Northern Ireland back on other social issues, it remains the only part of the UK where same-sex marriage is not legal.
Sitting on the side-lines whilst women’s rights every day are being violated cannot be justified nor tolerated.
Perhaps though the key difficulty in any kind of progress in Northern Ireland is that with the devolved assembly currently being dissolved over bitter political divisions, and few signs of things changing anytime soon, any type of change seems distant. Abortion policy was devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2010 as part of wider policing and justice powers under the Hillsborough Castle Agreement. With Stormont being out of action, the only change can come from Westminster which would lead to further political and constitutional complications. The Labour MP Stella Creasy is currently campaigning for Westminster to extend “21st century abortion laws across the British Isles”. Her campaign has already been gaining cross-party support but it’s unclear whether the Government will take up her plans. With the Government reliant on the support of the staunchly pro-life DUP, it seems unlikely that Theresa May will risk angering them. The DUP MP Ian Paisley has tweeted that “NI should not be bullied into accepting abortion on demand”. Referring to what he called the “foaming at the mouth idiocy” of some pro-choice commentators, he added: “On Abortion NI has had a settled cross-party view on this for decades. Nothing suggests it has changed.”
The Government has to face up to its responsibilities. With Northern Ireland currently under direct rule, the Government must act swiftly to either restore the devolved assembly or to settle the matter for itself. Sitting on the side-lines whilst women’s rights every day are being violated cannot be justified nor tolerated. It is fully within Westminster’s power to change the law. However, perhaps a better way of settling the debate would be to take a leaf out of the Republic’s book, hold a referendum. Allow the people of Northern Ireland to have the chance to have an open debate. With opinion polls suggesting that over 60 per cent of the Northern Irish public support relaxing the law, the pro-choice campaign shouldn’t have much difficulty replicating the success of their neighbour’s vote. Referendums could prove a useful tool for the Government to bring Northern Ireland’s overly socially conservative policies into the 21st century. There is similarly high support for same-sex marriage amongst the electorate. It would also give the Government political cover. They could say they acted in accordance with the will of the people. With the DUP being so ardently pro-Brexit, they would be branded hypocrites if they sought to deny the outcome of this referendum.
On a purely political point, long term, legalising abortion should be the goal of the Conservative Party if they want to preserve the Union. Unsurprisingly, support for abortion and socially liberal policies more generally is highest among the youngest in Northern Ireland. If the Government fails to act to bring Northern Ireland in line with a liberal, open, tolerant society that the Republic is moving towards, it is easy to see they might move towards favouring a United Ireland. Failure to act would make the London Government represent the conservative status quo, while Dublin would embody the spirit of change and freedom.
The reality is, regardless of anyone’s personal views, the current restrictions do nothing more than degrade and harm countless women. They are deprived of a choice over their own body just because they are born in a certain part of the UK. The ban drives abortion underground, making it more difficult and more dangerous. This is unacceptable. Northern Ireland must to catch up with not only the rest of the UK, but now also its southern neighbour.