Britain is denying abortion rights to Northern Ireland

June 21, 2018
People celebrate the result of a referendum decriminalising abortion, in Dublin on May 26.

The availability of free, safe, legal abortion and affordable, reliable contraception is a fundamental right. Being able to decide if and when to have children improves women’s educational outcomes, career prospects, health, relationships, the wellbeing of children, lifetime earnings and sex lives. Women benefit tremendously from reproductive freedom, and so does society as a whole.

Unless, of course, if you live in Northern Ireland, the statelet made up of six Irish counties claimed by Britain since Ireland’s partition in 1922. Since the resounding result of the abortion referendum in the Republic of Ireland (made up of Ireland’s remaining 26 counties) on May 26, Northern Ireland is the only part of the British Isles where women are still denied access to basic, life-saving healthcare.

Abortion is legal in Northern Ireland in very restricted circumstances, but the pathway into the NHS is severely limited by the ongoing failure of the Department of Health to publish final Termination of Pregnancy Guidance. This leaves health professionals with no clear guidelines on dealing with the issue of abortion.

Last year, 13 “legal” abortions were carried out in Northern Ireland; more than 700 travelled to England and beyond for terminations, and others took abortion pills, risking prosecution, to end their pregnancies.

Having been heavily involved in the Repeal the 8th Campaign in the Republic of Ireland and being thrilled at the resounding result last weekend, Alliance for Choice now know that there is widespread support for change in how women’s reproductive health is treated. Now it is time for the British government to listen to the people of Northern Ireland.

Last October, funding was made available from the Women and Equalities Department for Northern Irish people to access terminations by travelling to England. But there are always reasons women cannot travel; insecure immigration status, no access to a passport, coercive control relationships, disabilities and other health problems, to name just a few.

However, the availability of free healthcare in England does not address the British government’s duties. This was noted by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which said that thousands of women and girls in Northern Ireland are subjected to grave and systematic violations of rights through being compelled to either travel outside Northern Ireland to procure a legal abortion, or to illegally self-administer abortion pills without legal recourse to emergency health services.

The slim majority enjoyed by the government of Prime Minister Theresa May comes from a devil’s bargain struck with Northern Ireland’s virulently anti-choice Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) — one of Northern Ireland’s two largest parties. Perhaps this is why the PM remained silent on the historic repeal of the Republic of Ireland’s Eighth Amendment — and has shown no will to challenge DUP leader Arlene Foster’s determination to hold back the tide of progress.

By washing its hands of the matter, the British government is putting people’s lives at risk.

Northern Ireland’s devolved Assembly has been suspended since last year due to a deadlock over various issues between the DUP and Ireland-wide republican party Sinn Fein. But even if there was a functioning Assembly, the British government is still obliged to remedy breaches of international human rights treaties, particularly with regard to CEDAW.

Provision is made for this within the Northern Ireland Act. Where a devolved administration fails to uphold rights, British ministers have the power to intervene to protect people from such gross discrimination.

We demand the Westminster government take urgent action to remedy these breaches of human rights. On June 7, the British Supreme Court will deliver its ruling on a case that challenges whether Northern Ireland’s extremely restrictive abortion laws constitute a violation of human rights — after Amnesty international has already condemned them.

If the court rules that they are indeed infringing on people’s human rights, then the government will have nowhere left to hide.

Furthermore, we reject the suggestion that we need a referendum. The British government already has the power to intervene. And it is not desired by women, who do not want to continually re-litigate their rights to basic, life-saving healthcare.

In the immediate aftermath of Ireland’s Yes verdict, the DUP came out to say that Britain cannot act, because abortion is a devolved matter. However there is no functioning devolved Assembly in Northern Ireland, and there is not likely to be one until after Brexit in 2019, and there has been no Executive in Northern Ireland since January 2017.  

Instead we have a political vacuum and no political accountability. If the Assembly does return, and the DUP with other anti-choice members of the legislative assembly choose to use the Petition of Concern, legislation will be blocked. Once again, will Northern Ireland be left as one of the most oppressive regimes in Western Europe when it comes to women’s rights.

It is also interesting to note that Sinn Fein, the other major party in Northern Ireland, fully supported the move to repeal the Eighth amendment in Ireland and called also for Westminster to step in to legislate for Equal Marriage and an Irish Language Act. But nonetheless, they have decided that they do not want British legislation on abortion. Which begs the question – why not?

The right to have basic autonomy over your own body; to decide when and if you have children; to have healthcare provided to you, and to be treated as a human being who knows what is best for yourself and your family remains a fundamental demand of our movement; anything less is reproductive slavery. 

As Polish-born socialist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg stated: “What presents itself to us as bourgeois legality is nothing but the violence of the ruling class, a violence raised to an obligatory norm from the outset.”  We will continue to challenge the bourgeois control of Irish women’s bodies until we have achieved free, safe, and legal abortion.

[Abridged from Red Pepper.]

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