Next October will mark the 50th anniversary of the Abortion Act 1967, which legalised abortions by registered practitioners in Great Britain and provided a regulatory framework for the provision on the National Health Service of abortion care. Crucially, with health and justice having been devolved matters prior to the bill passing, almost fifty years on this bill never became law in Northern Ireland. Instead, in Northern Ireland the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 act applies meaning abortion is legal only in nebulously defined ‘exceptional circumstances’ and women can face life imprisonment if they have an illegal abortion.
In practice, according to the sexual health charity FPA, 95% of women in Northern Ireland who require an abortion are unable to access services safely and legally. Over 1,000 women a year travel to England to access private services that cost up to £2,000. Those that cannot afford this are forced into buying abortion pills over the internet, or into continuing with their pregnancies against their will and at risk to their physical and mental wellbeing.
Many of us were disgusted this month when a young woman was prosecuted in Belfast, for having procured abortion pills from the internet as a 19 year old after her flatmates reported her to the police. Like this young woman, I was 19 when I had an abortion. It is a decision for which I feel neither shame nor regret, and one that I would take again if the circumstances necessitated it now as they did then.
Living in Liverpool at the time, I could access the support and treatment I needed safely, legally and without judgement. I received treatment on the NHS, with caring healthcare professionals providing pastoral support prior to the treatment and aftercare following the procedure. To have been in that situation, but to be forced to take matters into my own hands, knowing that being open about it afterwards could cost me my liberty, would mean living in constant fear and shame. I am not a criminal, and nor is she.
I do not know many young women who would be able to pull together the kind of money you would need to travel to England for a private procedure, particularly when you would need to factor in the cost of accommodation and so on, and would not be able to be open about what the money is for if you were lending it. Young women are not merely criminalised for needing an abortion, but for not having the capital to leave the country to access one. Illegal abortions are not just an issue of gender, but one of class- with only women too poor to leave the country being forced to undergo illegal abortions, where women with resources can obtain them legally elsewhere. Young people, and particularly those with other intersecting oppressions, are more likely to find themselves in a situation where they cannot access the services they need due to their financial status, making their unplanned pregnancy a crisis pregnancy.
It is time that feminists and allies across the UK stood up in solidarity with our sisters in Northern Ireland to say loudly that the right to access a safe and legal abortion in your own country is fundamental! That no longer will we tolerate this assault on the bodily autonomy of women, and other people needing access to these services. That we call upon the Northern Irish assembly to #Extend67 to Northern Ireland, and that the unholy alliance of evangelical Protestants, the Catholic church and a majority of the assembly’s politicians should not dictate what a woman does with her own body. Not the church, not the state, women must decide their fate.