Dawn Purvis, former director of the Marie Stopes pregnancy advice service in Belfast and a former Independent Unionist member of the Northern Ireland Assembly, said Northern Ireland’s strict laws around abortion were leaving women traumatised.
Northern Ireland has a ban on abortions in almost all cases – even rape or incest. Abortion is only permitted when there is a risk to the life of the mother, or a serious risk to her physical or mental health.
Ms Purvis, who worked at UK abortion provider Marie Stopes for nearly three years, revealed a slew of shocking abortion cases she had witnessed first hand.
The 52-year-old said they saw the highest numbers of women coming into the clinic in January and February after having been raped during the Christmas period. The festive break often sees an increase in risks of domestic violence due to increased time with abusive partners, higher alcohol consumption and financial pressures.
She said that while people were aware domestic violence can increase over the Christmas period, they were less aware of the rise in sexual violence during this time.
“They were not having consensual sex," she said. "They were being forcibly raped and battered by abusive partners over Christmas. It is horrendous".
“One case that stuck out at me was a woman who came to us who had a boot mark on her face where her partner stamped on her head. She had escaped the day after boxing day because a neighbour heard the screams.”
The woman spent several days in casualty with her children and managed to leave the abusive relationship.
“But six or seven weeks later she found herself pregnant with no means to travel," Ms Purvis said. "She had no form of ID - no passport or driving licence. Abusive partners are all about power and control. They do not want you to have any control to turn around and leave. But they [the Irish authorities] looked at that young woman and said we can’t help you.”
Ms Purvis also said she came across a number of women who became pregnant after having their contraception forcibly removed by abusive partners.
“Another case that sticks with me is a young woman who came in on one of our closure days,” she recalled. “She was buzzing and buzzing at the door and the security guard brought her up because she was in such a state. She was hyperventilating. Her face was bruised and swollen and covered in makeup to cover the puffiness.”
She had a bandage around the top of her arm and was wearing shorts and a t-shirt even though it was extremely cold outside. The woman asked if they sold the morning after pill there.
“She had recently got married but had only been with him a short period of time,” Ms Purvis added. “He used to beat her. It was the usual pattern of ‘I'm sorry’ but then the beatings continued. He wanted her to get pregnant but she did not want to.”
“She had a contraceptive implant so he sat on her chest and cut out the implant with a stanley knife. That is why she had her arm wrapped up. He had raped her and had been raping her for weeks after that. Her face was a punch bag and she was in floods of tears saying ‘I can't have a child with this man. He will kill me and he will kill my son. I know that. I have to get away now’.”
Ms Purvis wound up giving her the number for domestic violence charity Women’s Aid and telling her what type of emergency contraception she needed before giving her money to go to Boots to get the morning after pill.
“What broke my heart is I do not know what happened to her. I always think about what happened to her,” she said.
If the woman had not taken emergency contraception, she would have been denied an abortion due to Northern Ireland’s strict laws around abortion.
“I think of others who had their contraception forcibly removed," she said. "Those women can't travel to England for an abortion. They are there lucky if they can escape from the house for an hour".
The 1967 Abortion Act, which established legal abortion, has never applied in Northern Ireland. Theresa May has faced pressure to give MPs a free vote on the issue after abortion was legalised in the Republic of Ireland following a historic referendum last May.
Official statistics show that twelve abortions were carried out in Northern Ireland last year. Amnesty International is calling for liberalisation of the stringent rules - saying more than 900 women travelled to England and Wales for the procedure during the same period.
Ms Purvis said she quite often came across people under 16 – who were as young as 12 - seeking abortions but they referred them to a clinic in England. She also noted that these cases immediately became safeguarding issues because it is classed as statutory rape when any child who is under the age of 13 becomes pregnant.
But she said the average woman she came across seeking abortions were those in their mid to late twenties in long-term relationships who had been using contraception.
“Going to another country for an abortion if you have been raped is, of course, going to be traumatic," she said. "You have just been through something so traumatic and the journey continues but unfortunately and ridiculously that is what they have to do. We need to get rid of criminal sanctions over what is effectively a healthcare issue”.
In April 2016, a 21-year-old woman was handed a suspended jail sentence after admitting self-terminating a pregnancy with drugs purchased online.
In a separate case, a mother, who cannot be named for legal reasons, is currently challenging a decision to prosecute her for buying her pregnant daughter abortion pills. She could face five years in prison if she loses.
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