50 years after the Abortion Act, women in Northern Ireland are still denied basic rights over their own bodies
This week marks 50 years since the 1967 Abortion Act passed – providing free, safe and legal abortions in Britain. But this anniversary reminds us that women in Northern Ireland – where the Act has never applied – have been waiting 50 years for these same rights.
In Northern Ireland there is a near-blanket ban on abortion and women run the risk of life imprisonment.
There is no exception for rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormalities – leading the United Nations to call the ban a human rights violation.
Recent changes have meant women from Northern Ireland can now receive abortions for free in England, as well as grants for their travel costs – but this is just a sticking plaster.
Some women will never be able to travel – whether due to immigration status, caring responsibilities or an abusive partner, who controls their every move. The women who do travel speak of the stigma and shame of being forced to board a plane or boat just to access basic healthcare which should be provided on their own shores.
At least two women a day make this lonely journey from Northern Ireland, with others choosing instead to take abortion pills bought online.
The pills (Mifepristone and Misoprostol) are on the World Health Organisation’s list of essential medicines, but are illegal throughout the UK under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act. Three women have been prosecuted for use of the pills in Northern Ireland since 2015.
The Northern Ireland Assembly has so far been reluctant to reform abortion laws, and Parliament has neglected to take responsibility for what it sees as a devolved issue – even though that devolved institution has not been functioning for almost a year. In the absence of political action, this question of women’s most fundamental rights has fallen to the courts.
Just this week, hearings began at the Supreme Court on the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission’s case on the termination of pregnancy, which seeks to highlight the human rights violations caused by the current legal framework in Northern Ireland.
If a power-sharing deal isn’t agreed in the coming weeks, we could soon see a period of direct rule over Northern Ireland, which would give Parliament the ability to act. But with the UK Government currently supported by the DUP, change looks almost impossible.
Every day that women in Northern Ireland are denied basic rights over their own bodies shames us all. Time is ticking on – who will act for the women of Northern Ireland?
This week the Northern Ireland abortion rights movement received a Liberty Human Rights Award for their decades of campaigning for women's rights.