Today, in the United Kingdom, a woman has been found guilty of having an abortion. It’s a horrifying idea – one which should have been long relegated to the annals of history, but which is sadly still the reality for a woman living in Northern Ireland in 2016.
The 21-year-old woman was found guilty at Belfast High Court today and given a three month sentence, suspended for two years. She was convicted under ancient laws which were passed under Queen Victoria and have sat untouched on Northern Ireland’s statute books for over 150 years.
The abortion ban makes it a criminal offence, carrying a sentence of anything up to life in prison, even if you have been raped or if the foetus is so severely disabled that it has no chance of surviving outside the womb.
The details which the court heard about this woman’s ‘crime’ reveal a heart-breaking nightmare. She was 19 when she experienced an unwanted pregnancy. She desperately tried to save up enough money to travel to England to have an abortion, but wasn’t able to. Left with no other choice and trapped in Northern Ireland, she bought abortion pills online and performed a DIY abortion on herself at home. Her housemates found blood-stained items and foetal remains in a bin and reported her to the police.
This teenager’s story is nothing short of heart breaking and no right minded person could feel anything but sympathy for this tragic case. But under the ban, she has been arrested, charged, placed in the dock and then criminalised.
Just last week when Donald Trump suggested that women should be “punished” for breaking abortion laws, he caused outrage around the world. In the UK, his comments were roundly condemned by politicians and commentators. How easily the British forget that this happens within the UK, out of sight and out of mind in Northern Ireland.
The especially shocking element of Northern Ireland’s abortion ban is how Westminster supports it through its silence. Regardless of Northern Ireland’s contested constitutional status, when it comes to human rights law we are just as much British citizens as women living in Blackpool or Birmingham. Westminster could easily overturn the abortion ban by passing legislation in the House of Commons. There is a particularly clear case for doing this as a High Court found in November that Northern Ireland’s abortion ban breaches international human rights law.
British politicians’ total disinterest in Northern Ireland’s abortion ban stems partly from indifference and political expedience. Simply put, there are no votes to be won in English MPs getting involved in Northern Irish affairs, meaning they turn a blind eye to many issues there. This enables Stormont to get away with things which they would never been allowed to do to other British citizens.
There is also a continuing attitude among British politicians that because of the Troubles, Northern Irish politics is a messy and complex topic, and they worry about upsetting the status quo of peace-time politics.
There is also a common complacency that women in Northern Ireland aren’t really being discriminated against because we can simply go on a plane or boat to England to access a termination there. However, as today’s trial shows, this is a choice only for socially and financially privileged women. Teenagers who do not have thousands of pounds at their disposal face no real chance of getting out of Northern Ireland in time.
In reality, Westminster’s reasoning for ignoring the issue amounts to nothing more than flimsy excuses which are of no use to Northern Irish women forced to live in fear and terror under the abortion ban.
The horrific ordeal that this young woman has been subjected to today and throughout the trial is utterly indefensible and should not be allowed to continue. Quite simply, British politicians are complicit in torturing and criminalising Northern Irish women through their silence.
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