The Alabama abortion ban is an outrage – but where is the solidarity for women in Northern Ireland?

It’s easy to tweet ‘solidarity with my sisters in the US #Alabama’, harder, perhaps, to take the practical steps needed to end the barbaric situation on our own doorstep

Rachel Connolly
Wednesday 15 May 2019 16:29
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Abortion campaigners call for access to treatment in Northern Ireland

News today that Alabama has passed a bill to outlaw almost all abortions was met with an outpouring of rage and solidarity from UK feminists. So why are many still silent about the fate of UK women living under the same punitive rules, with worse legal consequences, in Northern Ireland?

To be clear, the situation in Alabama is dire. Under the rule, abortion is illegal except if a woman’s life is at risk, and any doctor caught carrying one out faces a 99-year prison sentence, making the procedure virtually inaccessible.

The group of 25 men (surprise, surprise) who passed the ban say they expect it will be blocked in the lower courts, paving the way for a journey to the now majority conservative Supreme Court bench where, ultimately, they hope it may overturn Roe v Wade.

But let’s not forget, the current punishment for a Northern Irish woman undergoing an abortion is life imprisonment. This includes women who take online abortion pills, along with anyone who assists them, and the Police Service of Northern Ireland regularly raid the homes of people suspected to be in possession of abortion pills.

I am wary of arguments for abortion that hinge on the most extreme cases of rape and incest, but it serves to remember that even these are not exempted from the rule in Northern Ireland. And besides, whatever your views on abortion, there is a basic unfairness here: Northern Irish women pay the same taxes as those in the rest of the UK, yet are denied access to the same healthcare services. It’s like arguing that people in Brighton shouldn’t have access to a certain cancer treatment.

It’s easy to tweet: “Solidarity with my sisters in the US #Alabama”. Harder, perhaps, to take the practical steps needed to end the barbaric situation on our own doorstep. Some argue abortion, as a devolved issue, is beyond Westminster’s control, but the Northern Ireland assembly has been suspended since 2017.

Westminster could force through abortion legislation if they wanted to, instead the Tories choose to turn a blind eye for fear of upsetting their precarious pact with the DUP.

Theresa May markets herself as a feminist prime minister. She famously sported a “This is what a Feminist Looks Like” T-shirt, and has pointed to her record on shared parental leave and domestic violence as evidence of her credentials. Yet time and again she fails the most vulnerable women in the UK. From austerity policies (which women face the brunt of), to what Yvette Cooper has termed “the state sanctioned abuse of women” in Yarls Wood, and now leaving Northern Irish women in the lurch, May is no feminist.

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Thanks to a 2017 rule passed due to Stella Creasy’s efforts, Northern Irish women who travel to England are spared the price of a private abortion (often upwards of £1,000) and can access them free on the NHS. This is an improvement, but it’s not good enough, as my friend, the abortion rights activist Rachel Watters says, it is: “A sticking plaster on a gaping wound”.

Northern Irish Women are still left with the costs of last minute flights to England, which can run into the hundreds of pounds; still expected to lie to their bosses and families; and are still living in a culture of shame and silence where a relatively minor medical procedure is considered taboo.

In my experience, people in England often know so little about Northern Ireland they assume abortion rules relate in some nebulous way to the Catholic church, if they know about them at all.

The real driving force is the DUP, and May cannot in good conscience continue to promote herself as a champion of women’s rights, while she turns a blind eye to the plight of some of the most vulnerable women in the UK for the sake of their vote.

The Tories have decided it’s easier to pretend Northern Irish women don’t exist. We have to stop letting them. Treat May’s complicity in controlling women’s bodies the same way you treat Trump’s. Write to your MP. And while you’re at it, donate some money to the Abortion Support Network.

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