The UK's abortion shame: Northern Ireland urged to stop prosecuting women under abortion ban

The UN's Human Rights Committee, leading MPs and local women issue call after a number of high-profile prosecutions were launched

Siobhan Fenton
Tuesday 12 April 2016 13:19
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A pro-choice supporter carries a placard which reads 'Abortion is healthcare, it should be free, safe and legal'
A pro-choice supporter carries a placard which reads 'Abortion is healthcare, it should be free, safe and legal'

Northern Ireland is coming under growing pressure to stop prosecuting women for having abortions following a series of high-profile cases week which have focused international attention and outcry on the region's abortion ban.

Despite being part of the UK, Northern Ireland is exempt from the 1967 Abortion Act which covers the rest of the country and instead women face up to life in prison for having an abortion.

Leading MPs and Northern Irish women spoke to The Independent about how the laws affect lives locally and urged Northern Ireland to urgently stop prosecuting women. The United Nations Human Rights Committee also issued a fresh call for the UK to change the laws "as a matter of priority."

The case which exposed the harsh reality of the laws involved the prosecution of a 21-year-old woman in a Belfast court.

The woman told the court she was 19 when she had a crisis pregnancy and had tried to find enough money to travel to England for a legal procedure, but did not manage to and so ordered abortion pills online instead. When her housemates found blood-stained clothes and foetal remains in a bin, they reported her to the police and she was arrested.

It subsequently emerged that a second woman had appeared in a Belfast court and was due to stand trial on April 27 accused of helping her daughter access abortion pills.

Local media has reported that prosecutors are considering two further files relating to abortion charges.

Why is Northern Ireland's abortion legislation different from the rest of the UK?

Unlike the rest of the UK, the 1967 Abortion Act does not apply to Northern Ireland.

Terminations are a criminal offence with a jail sentence of up to life in prison unless a woman’s health is in imminent and serious threat of permanent harm.

Very few women seeking abortions meet these strict requirements.

It is estimated that around 1,000 Northern Irish women travel to Great Britain for abortions every year.

Following a High Court ruling this summer, Northern Irish women are not entitled to free NHS England abortions and must pay privately for the procedure when they arrive. It is believed that a growing number of women may be buying abortion pills online and having them shipped into Northern Ireland.

In November, Belfast High Court ruled that the abortion ban is a breach of international human rights legislation. However, in February, the Northern Ireland Assembly voted to keep the ban regardless.

A spokesperson for the United Nations Human Rights Committee told The Independent the organisation was "concerned" by the prosecutions following a review of Northern Ireland's abortion ban.

They said: "The Committee is concerned about the highly restrictive circumstances in which termination of pregnancy is permitted by law in Northern Ireland and about the severe criminal sanctions for unlawful abortion, which put women's life and health at risk and force them to travel in order to seek an abortion.

"The State party [UK] should, as a matter of priority, amend its legislation on abortion in Northern Ireland with a view to providing for additional exceptions to the legal ban on abortion, including in cases of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormality."

Speaking to The Independent, MPs Yvette Cooper, Caroline Lucas, Liz Kendall and Jess Phillips urged the Northern Ireland Assembly to stop prosecuting women, calling the prosecutions “appalling” and “shameful”.

Yvette Cooper MP said: “These are deeply troubling cases. It is appalling that any woman should have been forced through the criminal courts because she couldn’t afford to travel a few miles across the sea for an abortion. The law in Northern Ireland is way out of date and goes against the Human Rights Convention. It’s high time the Northern Ireland Assembly changed the law.”

Caroline Lucas MP said: “This case shows the grim realities of the harsh restrictions on the right to choose in Northern Ireland. Women should never face this kind of draconian crackdown. It’s time that Northern Ireland’s abortion laws were updated and that women’s right to choose is upheld.”

Liz Kendall MP said: “We must end the criminalisation of women in Northern Ireland who, often in desperate circumstances, decide to terminate their pregnancy. Currently, women wishing to terminate a pregnancy are either forced to travel to other parts of the UK, or, if they don’t have the money, attempt an abortion themselves, putting their safety at risk. That is no choice. Women in Northern Ireland should have access to safe abortions, in hospitals or clinics, like women in the rest of the UK.”

Jess Phillips MP said: “I am appalled that in the country where I live such a discrepancy of rights exists. The criminalisation of any woman who chooses to take control of her own body in the UK brings shame upon us all. This young woman deserved love, care, support and understanding- I am only sorry she faced the exact opposite. We will all suffer the shame of this until we fight for and achieve change for every British woman and all the women in the world.”

What life is like for Northern Irish women under the ban

Seven women shared their personal experiences with The Independent of living under Northern Ireland’s abortion ban. Names have been changed to protect the women’s identities as many fear prosecution by police.

Niamh*

"I have a serious health condition and when I became pregnant, my doctor told me that there was a risk the baby could be born with no limbs, spina bifida or Down’s syndrome. If I were in any other region of the UK, I would have been recommended an abortion as a medical treatment.

Although I could afford to travel to England for a termination, I didn’t know how I could explain to midwives and doctors why I was suddenly no longer pregnant. I ordered tablets instead.

Waiting for the tablets to arrive was terrifying. I was convinced the police had intersected my post and were waiting to arrest me. When the tablets arrived, I took them but soon realised something was seriously wrong. Blood was gushing out of me like a tap. I went to hospital but couldn’t tell the medical staff what I’d done. I lay bleeding on the hospital floor for six hours. I still think about what harm I will have caused myself in the long run, and I’ve no way of knowing.

Life for women in Northern Ireland is difficult to describe. I live in fear. Despite no longer being pregnant I still worry about the consequences, I’m not sure how to move on. The fear of being arrested stays with me and I’ve no idea how long it will take until I’m comfortable knowing that I’m safe."

Hundreds of protesters gathered outside the Public Prosecution Service in Belfast to argue that the prosecutions do not meet the 'public interest' threshold

Deborah*

"My work colleague became pregnant and I travelled to England with her for the termination. She was a single mother already and had to take out a loan to cover the cost of the flight and procedure.

We had to travel back on the same day as the procedure because we couldn’t afford to stay over. My friend almost fainted in the airport toilets and the journey home was horrendous, she was in such pain and discomfort. If the abortion ban was not in place, she could have stayed in her home country, received better care and not endured that terrible journey."

Lauren*

"I was suffering from post-natal depression after giving birth to my son when I became pregnant again. I knew that mentally, emotionally and financially I couldn’t cope with another child. I couldn’t buy pills online so I force-fed myself a large amount of vitamin C pills in the hope of bringing on a miscarriage.

It didn’t work and thankfully a friend lent me around £1,000 for the procedure in England. Flying home afterwards was an ordeal no woman should have to endure. The cramps, the blood and air hostesses and strangers and the tiny little airplane toilet trying to look after myself- it was all such an unnecessary ordeal.

I am blown away by how anti-women our country is. The prosecutions this week make me ashamed to be Northern Irish."

Protesters carry a banner outside Belfast's Public Prosecution this week stating 'Break the stigma, all women should have a right to choose'

Ciara*

"I would have had to consider suicide had I been forced to continue with my pregnancy. I was not a victim of crime or rape but someone who just could not handle having a baby.

I travelled to Manchester for an abortion and was so lucky that I was able to do so."

Natasha*

"I was lucky, although I’m from Northern Ireland I was studying at an English university when I became pregnant. I do not regret it. I never have. I’m not sure I ever will.

However, it was very much on my mind that my own country did not want me to have the choice that I did. Northern Ireland denies women and girls the right to choose how to live their lives. The government did not trust me. The government in Northern Ireland does not trust women.

The conviction this week sickened me. It makes me ashamed to say that I am from Northern Ireland."

The protesters claim that the trials do not meet the 'public interest' threshold for prosecution

Paula*

"I was 16 when I took the plane to London. I was distressed and terrified and I had to take time off school to go. I was very lucky that my parents went with me. We stayed in a hotel afterwards and I was so fortunate that I didn’t have to fly home, in pain and bleeding.

The thought of that poor young woman who was prosecuted this week had to go through with no support doesn’t bare thinking about."

Rebecca*

"I travelled to Liverpool for an abortion and had a miscarriage while I was waiting for the procedure. This is the first time I've ever been open with anyone about what happened.

A nurse sat with me and held my hand while it happened and said: "I'm sure you just wish you were at home." I did wish I was home instead of having to fly over to England and would have given anything to be able to have it done at home.

I wanted to be in Northern Ireland so I could have returned safely to my own home afterwards, sleep in my own home that night- instead of in a cheap hotel room, terrified of staining the sheets. I got the plane home to Northern Ireland the following evening, still in pain and still bleeding.

The recent events here with the trials haunt me and sicken me."

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