Monday’s conviction of a young woman in Northern Ireland for procuring an abortion has, unsurprisingly, provoked outrage. She had been reported to the police by her housemates, and was given a suspended sentence of three months imprisonment.
Disturbingly, some pro-life groups have been making headlines by claiming that the sentence was too lenient and should be revisited.
Leading the charge is Bernadette Smyth, director of the Northern Irish anti-abortion group Precious Life, who appeared on this morning’s Today programme, calling for the judge’s ruling to be sent to an appeals court.
When repeatedly asked if the young woman (who has not been named) deserved to go to prison, Smyth refused to answer, preferring to exhaustively restate that the sentence sets ‘a very dangerous precedent’, encourages other women to use abortion pills and fails to protect unborn children and their mothers.
Yesterday, the Belfast Telegraph published an interview with the two women who reported their housemate. They trawled over the physical details of the case — describing how they found the foetal remains in the bin, expressing surprise at how developed it was. This approach mirrors the tactics of Precious Life — and similar organisations around the world — who relentlessly use images of miscarried or aborted foetuses as campaign tools.
In a distasteful twist, the interview constantly circles back to the 19-year-old’s ‘attitude’ and her lack of expressed remorse. One of the women explicitly states that ‘this isn't a debate about the rights and wrongs of abortion’ but about ‘the way this was done’.
In other words, these women were acting as thought police. They punished their housemate not because she felt the need to have an abortion, but because she wasn’t sufficiently ashamed of it, because she went about it the wrong way.
No matter that she had tried and failed to raise the money to travel to England to receive proper treatment, as thousands of women from across Ireland do every year. The pro-life case is fatally undermined by the reality that the women who get punished for abortions are poor women, whose lack of funds prevents them from disappearing to the other island for clean and quiet abortions.
Those who defend the prosecution of this young woman depend on the dog-whistle politics of horror. They obsess over the sickening details in the hope that our revulsion at blood, gore and half-formed foetal matter will extend to revulsion at the women who procure those abortions.
Instead of setting a ‘dangerous precedent’ where women feel entitled to basic medical treatment, they prefer to build a climate of fear and shame, where desperate women without clinical options not only fear the law, but also the disgust of their friends, families and communities.
It’s clear that the law in Northern Ireland needs reform. That has been established by domestic courts and international human rights bodies. But beyond that, we need to figure out how to tackle the culture of shame that encourages the policing of women’s bodies and thoughts.
That requires politicians in Northern Ireland to have the courage to legislate on this issue. And it requires politicians in Westminster, along with feminists and rights advocates across the UK, to provide an alternative narrative to the one propagated by Precious Life, reinscribing the principle that a woman’s right to choose is non-negotiable.
Because this case was horrific. Frightened housemates should not have to deal with disposing of foetal remains, just as frightened young women shouldn’t have to induce miscarriages alone in their bedrooms, without medical or emotional support.
But instead of blaming or punishing the individual involved, we should blame a political system that refuses to legislate for safe and legal abortion. Until it does, the real horror will continue.Reuse content