Derry is a city full of kindnesses. It is a city blessed with a culture of women helping women. But in 1966 there was an oppressive silence throughout the whole of Northern Ireland. The catalyst? Abortion.
A group of forward-thinking and courageous women set up Alliance for Choice in Derry to promote reform, discussion of abortion and changes to abortion law; their work continues today.
In 1967, the UK Abortion Act was introduced – but not in Northern Ireland. In Northern Ireland it rescued only those women who could afford travel to Britain for a legal abortion.
In the 1970s, I was working for Belfast Welfare Department as a social worker. The only abortions poorer people with crisis pregnancies could afford then were on the backstreets and they were very dangerous. Better-off women could afford to travel and pay for access to legal abortion in Britain.
That remains the case in 2016, when travel, abortion and accommodation costs to facilitate a termination total up to £2,000. In short, poor women who want a choice don’t have one.
That is why the introduction of the nine-week abortion pills on the internet, made available five years ago, was so significant. It made abortion during the first nine weeks of pregnancy affordable for poorer women in Northern Ireland for the first time – £60, or free.
Women on Web is run legally as a charity in Holland offering GP consultation, pills and post-procedure counselling, if necessary. But late last year, a young woman who had procured the nine-week abortion pills was pulled before Belfast Court, tried and handed a one year suspended sentence, for accessing these pills.
This came as a complete shock. People were angry, frightened and distressed. That arrest and conviction has since been followed up by charges against a mother who procured the pills for her teenage daughter.
People in Northern Ireland are outraged that women coping as best they can with a pregnancy which already presents a crisis for them are then being dragged before our courts. They are being threatened with life imprisonment under our archaic 1861 Offences against the Person Act.
The outrage is legitimate as only poorer women are the true victims. Women who can access the considerable amount of money needed to travel to Britain for a legal abortion will not be touched by this regressive legislative precedent.
You need only fear jail if you are women who chooses to access affordable abortion pills, Mifepristone and Misoprostol, online – the very same pills recommended by the World Health Organisation. We have one law for the rich and another for the poor.
So, along with two other Derry women, at the age of 71, I decided enough was enough: I handed myself in to police for being involved in the procuring of abortion pills for women who cannot afford to travel and are too terrified to have them delivered to their home address, as a protest against the law.
We are three of many. There are hundreds of us out there breaking the existing law in Northern Ireland. Why are the police pursuing women in the most vulnerable of circumstances?
We don't respect the law because it is archaic, irrelevant and unfair. However, we don’t believe that we are committing a crime because, as one fellow campaigner put it, “there is a civic duty to obey a just law, but there is a moral duty to disobey an unjust law”.
The 1967 UK Abortion Act should be introduced across Northern Ireland, but our government is letting people down. They simply turn their backs and look away.
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