How did Northern Ireland lawmakers carve out an anti-abortion ‘ghetto’ within the UK?

Northern Ireland remains a blind spot for equality for women and members of the LGBTIQ community. Will Ireland’s abortion referendum change this?

Stephanie Williamson
11 June 2018


Amnesty International campaigners outside the Supreme Court | Lara Whyte

More than two weeks have passed since Ireland’s historic abortion referendum was won by a groundswell of grassroots feminist activism. A large majority (66.4%) voted to repeal the country’s eighth constitutional amendment, opening the door to proposed legislation to allow abortions up to 12 weeks.

Huge numbers of repeal campaigners and voters were young women – with a staggering 94% increase in the turnout of women aged 18–24, compared to the 2016 general election. The result reflected a frank rejection of decades of misogyny and the suffocating grip of church and state on women’s rights.

Although my heart burst with solidarity with my southern sisters, as a Northern Irish woman, whose rights are ignored by both my own (non-existent) devolved government and Westminster, I was left feeling dejected and a little numb.

New abortion legislation is expected in Ireland before the end of the year. Apart from Malta (where there is a total ban on abortion), Northern Ireland will have the strictest abortion laws in Europe. Although these restrictions don’t stop abortions, they force women to travel for healthcare.

Last week, the UK Supreme Court dismissed an appeal on Northern Ireland’s abortion law on a technicality, ruling that the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission did not have the required standing to bring the case, as it was not claiming to have been a victim of the law itself.

The court’s judgement did acknowledge, however, that Northern Ireland is in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights, by denying women abortions in cases of fatal foetal abnormality and sexual crimes.

.@MrsEtoB reacts to the Supreme Court's finding that existing abortion laws in NI are incompatible with human rights law in cases of fatal foetal abnormality and sexual crime. Read more on this story here: https://t.co/DxtqyuKA5B pic.twitter.com/9Ja04rOU7E

— BBC News NI (@BBCNewsNI) June 7, 2018

“This is hugely significant and makes it clear there is nowhere left for the government to hide on this issue,” Amnesty International’s Grainne Taggart told openDemocracy outside the court. “This must be the final nail in the coffin for Northern Ireland’s abortion ban.”

Last year, 919 women from Northern Ireland travelled to England and Wales for terminations. This was a 25% increase on 2016 numbers, and could be related to high-profile cases of women being reported to Northern Ireland police for using abortion pills in the past few years.

Northern Ireland remains a blind spot for equality in the UK and was often left out of the conversation leading up to the Irish abortion referendum – a stark reminder of a historical lack of solidarity from our so-called-feminist allies that Northern Irish grassroots organisations such as Alliance for Choice have long endured.

‘This must be the final nail in the coffin for Northern Ireland’s abortion ban’

While #TheNorthisNext, #NowForNI and #TrustAllWomen began trending, there were calls for a similar referendum on abortion in Northern Ireland – though this is entirely unnecessary.

Our laws can be reformed using normal legislative measures; in the prolonged absence of a functioning government in Northern Ireland, they should be passed at Westminster. There’s no need to pass the buck any longer.

Continued anti-choice and anti-LGBTIQ sentiment across prominent political parties in Northern Ireland is not, and has never been, representative of what the people want; it is instead one of the more regressive symptoms of our post-conflict politics – sadly, still overwhelmingly concerned with sectarian divides and the past.

Since January 2017, those divides have toppled the power sharing agreement between the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the main republican party, Sinn Fein, leaving the country with no running government.

On Saturday 2 June, thousands of people rallied in Belfast city centre for marriage equality for gay and lesbian couples amid a sea of colourful, witty placards.

Northern Ireland is also the only part of the UK where same-sex marriage is not legal, and where the clients of sex workers are criminalised – a measure that has been loudly criticised by sex workers themselves for putting them at greater risk by making their working conditions more dangerous.

The 1861 Offences Against the Person Act criminalised abortion in the UK. Women in England, Wales and Scotland were exempted from this law by the 1967 Abortion Act, which does not apply to Northern Ireland.

An emergency House of Commons debate was held on Tuesday 5 June about proposals to change this. Stella Creasy, a London MP, opened the debate with an impassioned call for the dignity of Northern Irish women to finally be respected.

“I make no apology putting the safety and dignity of women first as part of equality between the sexes,” Creasy said.

‘I make no apology putting the safety and dignity of women first as part of equality between the sexes’

These proposed legislative changes are very significant, especially in the current absence of functioning devolution – which is the most common excuse for inaction. “It seems as though the rights of women in Northern Ireland were traded as part of the devolution settlement,” said Maria Miller MP said, during last week’s debate.

Heidi Allen was one of two MPs who spoke of their own experiences of abortion in the House of Commons – a first for the British parliament.

She spoke about her “incredibly hard decision” to have a termination – only to followed by abusive, anti-choice rhetoric from Sammy Wilson, a DUP MP who made erroneous claims of foetuses being “discarded and thrown in the bin” across the UK.

On @StephenNolan today -
DUP MP Sammy Wilson accused of insensitivity as he refers to aborted foetuses being "discarded and put in a bin"

— The Nolan Show, BBC (@BBCNolan) June 6, 2018

Another DUP MP, Ian Paisley, added that terminations were being used as ‘contraception’ in the rest of the UK, and that MPs were acting in haste by trying to repeal the Victorian-era laws that still apply in Northern Ireland.

Several of the DUP’s statements seemed to have been lifted directly from leaflets and posters by the anti-choice campaigns, including Both Lives Matter.

After the debate, for example, the DUP’s Jim Wells, a former health minister in Northern Ireland’s devolved assembly, compared abortion to the Holocaust.

This comparison has also been made by US anti-abortion campaigners, including The Radiance Foundation – among the many foreign advertisers who targeted Irish voters on Facebook in the run-up to the referendum.

A majority of the Supreme Court found that the current law’s prohibition on abortion in Northern Ireland, even in cases of fatal foetal abnormality and sexual crimes, is incompatible with Article 8 (right to private and family life) of the European Convention on Human Rights, though it ultimately dismissed the case.

The result has been seized upon by both sides as a victory – yet more evidence of how polarised this debate has become.

Theresa May, the UK’s prime minister, is facing increasing pressure to address women’s restricted access to reproductive rights in Northern Ireland, once and for all – putting her controversial coalition with the DUP at risk in the process.

While increasing numbers of Conservative MPs rally behind Northern Irish women, in the seemingly never-ending battle for agency over their own bodies, the UK’s anti-rights ‘ghetto’ has become impossible to ignore.

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