In May of last year, when Ireland voted for legalisation of abortion in its historic referendum, pro-choice campaigners on both sides of the Northern Irish-Irish border celebrated. The campaign to repeal the eighth amendment (the law that previously made abortion illegal in Ireland) had begun as a grassroots movement, culminating in a mass cultural shift led by both Irish and Northern Irish activists.
Many in the north, particularly those in border counties, canvassed in the republic, held fundraisers and rallies, and threw themselves behind pushing for a Yes vote despite not being able to vote in the referendum themselves. The landslide vote to repeal Ireland’s archaic abortion laws was an emotional and monumental moment for pro-choice campaigners both sides of the border. For Northern Irish campaigners, repealing the eighth amendment marked what felt like a watershed moment for the inevitable decriminalisation of abortion in the north.
The news, then, that Northern Irish people seeking an abortion in the republic will have to pay €450 (£404) has come as a slap in the face. Last week, the Health Service Executive confirmed that while the procedure is free for Irish people, those in the north will have to pay, citing that a fee will be determined by a GP.
The Irish Family Planning Associate has since announced that €450 will cover the costs of the procedure for Northern Irish people. Even those of us who hold Irish citizenship in the north will be made to pay for abortion procedures.
While Ireland’s health minister, Simon Harris, had previously pledged to find a way to allow women in Northern Ireland to access abortion at the same cost as those in the republic, his spokesperson told the Irish News that “a mechanism has yet to be found” to allow this.
It’s an insult to Together for Yes campaigners on both sides of the border. The mantra for the pro-choice movement in the north and south has always been “free, safe, legal” access to abortion for anyone who wants it.
The €450 cost of an abortion in the republic will mean it may still be cheaper to pay to fly or get the boat to mainland Britain where, last year, abortion procedures were finally made free for Northern Irish people. During the campaign to repeal the eighth, Northern Irish activists hoped that a Yes vote in the republic would make abortion procedures more accessible to any and all on the island.
For those in the border counties it’s a particularly heavy blow. The Irish border runs through fields, gardens, and villages, and many live their day-to-day lives moving freely across both the north and south. Why should someone who works, goes to school, or college in the republic but lives half a mile on the northern side of the border, be made to pay an extortionate fee for an abortion procedure?
Many other health services, for example cancer services, are cross-border, meaning that those in the north and south have access to them. The currently unknown impact of Brexit on the Irish border only makes the future of how cross-border health services will operate even more uncertain.
Once again, the people of Northern Ireland have been left in a state of limbo by the Northern Irish, British, and Irish government.
While there is mounting pressure on Westminster to use its power to legalise abortion in Northern Ireland (due to Northern Ireland’s abortion laws, the UK is currently breaching the European Convention on Human Rights), it’s unlikely Theresa May will push for decriminalisation while the DUP, which strongly opposes decriminalisation, holds sway over the Conservative’s power in government.
Once again, reproductive rights and access to safe and legal health procedures have been swept aside for political gains.
Legalisation in the republic has therefore been a beacon of hope for those in the north. The news of a €450 fee is an affront to the spirit of the Together for Yes movement and the Northern Irish activists who fought to repeal the eighth amendment.
As with same-sex marriage (also currently illegal in Northern Ireland), the abuse of human rights in the country is continually being ignored and swept under the rug.
Abortion for a select few is not what we fought for during the campaign to repeal the eighth amendment. Repealing the eighth in the republic was a historic milestone, however, it isn’t the end of the fight for legalisation of abortion in Ireland.
The cross-border solidarity displayed during the campaign must continue and the Irish government, like Westminster, has a responsibility to make safe healthcare as accessible as possible to those who need it. Not charging those in the north €450 for what is otherwise a free procedure, is the least they could do.
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