The Supreme Court has just ruled Northern Irish women can’t get NHS abortions in England – another exercise in ‘taking back control’

Like me, the DUP’s Arlene Foster is a mother of three. I don’t believe she doesn’t know what she is demanding of other women when she seeks to deny them reproductive autonomy. She chooses not to think about it

Wednesday 14 June 2017 16:27 BST
The Supreme Court has ruled that allowing free NHS abortions for Northern Irish women would not be 'respectful'
The Supreme Court has ruled that allowing free NHS abortions for Northern Irish women would not be 'respectful' (PA)

Judges at the Supreme Court have ruled that women from Northern Ireland will not be entitled to free abortions on the NHS in England. Why? Because to grant them this would mean a failure to “respect the democratic decision of the people of Northern Ireland”, where abortion is not permitted.

It’s all about honouring the right to choose, providing it’s not individual women who get to do the choosing.

There’s something especially galling about the idea of sovereignty being used to limit women’s reproductive choices. We must respect borders at all costs, unless said borders belong to the female body. The right to self-determination must be acknowledged, except in cases where individual women wish to take control of their own lives. Autonomy is a wonderful thing, as long as it’s never granted grant to real, live, flesh-and-blood women and girls. Let’s all take back control, unless one of us happens to be a pregnant woman, in which case, let’s not.

The case for Brexit – the whole idea of “taking back control” – rested on a hazy belief that British people were denied freedoms due to the interference of outsiders. When pushed, those demanding said control could rarely name any specific rights to which they’d have access were it not for the so-called Brussels elite. The British economy is being driven over a cliff edge for the sake of a self-determination that exists in name only. There’s a particularly bitter irony to the fact that one of the many things that could be sacrificed to this meaningless “sovereignty” could be any hope of Northern Irish women gaining actual, meaningful control over their own reproductive lives.

Today’s Supreme Court decision is not a direct consequence of the Tories’ attempts to reach a confidence and supply agreement with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party. Nonetheless, it comes within a context of political upheaval in which many fear women’s reproductive rights will be used as a bargaining chip. When Jeremy Hunt talks of “respect”, he refers to the maintenance of political relationships which are, we are to believe, of greater importance than the relationship between the state and a woman’s own body. That the latter relationship is itself political is of no consequence to him. It takes imagination and empathy to understand what an unwanted pregnancy means to each individual who experiences it; Hunt doesn’t appear to have either.

Like “take back control” and “strong and stable”, “my body, my choice” is a slogan that can be repeated again and again until it seems to carry no meaning at all. Anti-abortion groups seize on this to present choice as a kind of needless indulgence. The alternative to having an abortion, they imply, is simply not having an abortion. The physical and mental reality of nine months of forced gestation, followed by the trauma and lifelong impact of giving birth, are barely mentioned at all. Anyone who has ever been pregnant can surely imagine how horrific it must be to go through such an experience against one’s will.

Like me, the DUP’s Arlene Foster is a mother of three. I don’t believe she doesn’t know what she is demanding of other women when she seeks to deny them reproductive autonomy. She chooses not to think about it.

Why the DUP is so controversial

As with Brexit, an unwanted pregnancy isn’t a situation in which “no deal is better than a bad deal”. You can’t just have “no pregnancy”, any more than you can have “no relationship whatsoever with EU member states”. You either see it through to the end or you abort. Those are the only choices there are. Hunt knows this. Foster knows this. Everyone involved in making decisions about reproductive rights knows this. Denying women and girls NHS funding for the treatment they need will not change the social, economic and/or physical conditions of these women and girls’ lives. It will not lessen their need. It merely increases their suffering.

And for what? In this case, out of a stated desire – almost hilariously – not to interfere with decisions made by “the people of Northern Ireland”. As though the mother and daughter at the centre of the Supreme Court ruling are not themselves Northern Irish people whose decisions should be respected. As though man-made institutions and borders are real, solid, immutable, but a woman’s ownership of herself? Well, that’s only temporary, subject to terms and conditions.

There’s something peculiarly tragic about the way in which human interdependencies mean nothing to the political establishment, except in the case of a foetuses’ dependence on a female body whose own needs can be disregarded. The courage of the women at the centre of this case, who wish to set a precedent which will help countless others, sets an example for self-determination which does not involve the exclusion of others. Notions of self-governance and autonomy need not be aligned with selfishness and isolationism.

The women have now instructed their legal team to file an application with the European Court of Human Rights in order, in their words, “to protect the human rights of the many other women who make the lonely journey to England every week because they are denied access to basic healthcare services in their own country”. The female body has no borders but its own. It’s time these were the ones we respected most of all.

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