Why aren’t we up in arms about abortion still being illegal in Northern Ireland? – The Sun
STANDING outside the grey building, Diana* fought back tears. She was alone, hungry and exhausted from hours of travelling, but stepping through the doors of the abortion clinic, she knew her ordeal was far from over.
“The reception area was full of women numbly waiting for their terminations,” remembers Diana, 33, who had become pregnant after being raped.
“I wondered just how many were there under the same terrifying veil of secrecy that I was.
“Had they lied to their parents about where they were going? Had they wiped their browsing history after Googling where to buy abortion pills in case it might land them in prison? I was petrified and would have given anything for a hug from my mum or a friend.”
With the shock news last month of Alabama’s near-total abortion ban, which will make terminations illegal even in cases of rape and incest, it’s easy to assume Diana lives somewhere in the deep south of America’s Bible Belt – but she doesn’t. Diana’s from Belfast, just 320 miles away from the London clinic she visited in 2007. Yet, 12 years on, abortion still remains illegal in Northern Ireland unless there is a threat to the mother’s life. The fact that such legislation exists seems all the more shocking given the outcry in response to Alabama’s brutal new law. As the news broke, it prompted global outrage, with thousands taking part in rallies across America to protest.
On Twitter, actress Busy Philipps encouraged women to share their abortion stories via #Youknowme, leading celebrities Jameela Jamil and Tess Holliday to post their experiences. And Miley Cyrus teamed up with designer Marc Jacobs to produce a £180 hoodie, with proceeds going to pro-choice charity Planned Parenthood.
So why aren’t we more up in arms about the fact abortion is still illegal in Northern Ireland?
“Each week, 28 women travel from Northern Ireland to the rest of the UK for an abortion, but many people still aren’t aware of this,” says Grainne Teggart, campaign manager for Amnesty International. “While abortion was decriminalised in the rest of the UK in 1967, the law doesn’t apply here and there’s still silence, stigma and shame surrounding this issue.
“Extreme cases, such as the 12-year-old who was raped and had to go to the UK for an abortion, show how grave the situation is. Our law heaps trauma on victims. At a time when they need compassion, they are forced to travel miles for a termination.”
While last September the Republic of Ireland removed its constitutional ban on abortion following a referendum earlier that year, no such reforms look likely in the north because of the power held by the right-wing Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Alongside Sinn Féin, they held the most seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly until its collapse in 2017, plus they are the sixth largest party in the House of Commons, propping up the Conservatives after the 2017 election created a hung parliament.
“There are many members of the DUP who object to abortion for religious reasons, which has blocked progress with abortion rights in the past,” explains Grainne. “The recent relationship between the DUP and the Conservative government has put a spotlight on the situation. Amnesty International is very clear that we will not accept sacrifices in rights for political expediency. It is the responsibility of the government to bring about the reform that the women here so desperately need.”
Until that happens, the only option available to women in Northern Ireland is to travel to England, Scotland or Wales for a termination or to illegally buy abortion pills online.
In 2018, 1,053 Northern Irish women made the journey to England – a rise from 724 in 2016.** But while abortions are free after the Women and Equalities Committee set up a fund in 2018, there are still other factors to be considered, such as travel and accommodation costs, as well as work and family commitments.
“While hundreds are able to travel for abortion care, some women just can’t,” says Katherine O’Brien from the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS). “Women in controlling or violent relationships may be unable to access their passport or photo ID or even spend an entire day outside of their home. Instead, the only option they have is to continue an unwanted pregnancy or use abortion medication purchased online and risk imprisonment. The fact that a woman in a violent relationship could face a longer sentence for ending her pregnancy than the person who abused her highlights just how cruel Northern Ireland’s abortion law really is.”
Diana, who is gay, became pregnant in 2007 after being gang-raped when she was just 21. “I was at a party with two male friends,” she says. “They knew I’d never been with a man and decided to show me what I was ‘missing out on’. I was in shock afterwards and tried to forget what had happened so I didn’t tell anyone or go to the police. But five weeks later,
I discovered I was pregnant, which was devastating.”
Diana, who works as a mental health co-ordinator, felt her only option was to have a termination, but she was terrified her religious parents would disown her.
“I didn’t know where to start, so I Googled abortion and came across BPAS,” she says.
“They offered me a discounted rate for the procedure at a Marie Stopes clinic in London. At the time, the procedure cost £750, plus I had to pay £200 in travel and accommodation, which was a lot of money for a student.
I had to take out several pay-day loans to cover it and I knew it would take years to pay back, but I had no choice. I couldn’t help but feel angry about all I’d been through, but I forced myself to concentrate on getting to England.
“I lied to my mum, telling her I was going to a concert in Dublin overnight, then flew to London, where BPAS organised a taxi to pick me up and take me to the clinic in Streatham. It was → horrifying. I was alone in a country I didn’t know and really frightened.”
Even though she was only seven weeks pregnant, Diana chose a surgical termination. “I could have taken abortion pills, but BPAS warned that if I had complications then I couldn’t go to a doctor in Northern Ireland, as they’d call the police,” she explains. “I was in a lot of pain after the procedure, but only stayed one night in my hotel as I didn’t want anyone to get suspicious.”
Once home, Diana was able to reflect on her experience. “Not one ounce of me was sad I’d had the abortion,” she says. “But I felt upset that I’d been forced to do it alone. And I was distraught about being raped, which took me a long time to get over.”
Despite the trauma of the procedure, Diana – who’s now in a happy relationship with her girlfriend of two years – has never regretted her decision. “But it’s absolutely shocking that so many women still have to go through such an ordeal to get one,” she says. “It’s archaic and disgusting.”
Mara Clarke, 46, is an abortion rights activist who lives in south-east London and runs the Abortion Support Network, which helps women in Northern Ireland have abortions by organising procedures, travel and accommodation while offering emotional support.
“I started helping women when I was living in New York in 2002,” she explains. “I’d read about women coming to the city for terminations because it was banned in the state they lived in. Some were forced to sleep in their cars while waiting for clinics to open. I couldn’t bear the thought, so I began putting women up in my home.”
When Mara, who is originally from America, moved to the UK in 2005, she got involved with campaigning for abortion rights here. She went on to found the Abortion Support Network, helping women travel to the UK for abortions.
“I housed women myself when I lived near one of the abortion clinics in west London in 2009,” she explains. “We have had some terrible cases, such as a mother of four who’d thought about how she could crash her car to cause a miscarriage without killing or permanently injuring herself. There was also a woman who got her partner to beat her in the stomach with a bat. In the last three years we’ve helped over 400 women from Northern Ireland, from 13 to 52 years old. The only difference between the ‘50s and today in Northern Ireland is that you can Google: ‘How to self-abort’.”
Over the years there have been many high-profile cases of women in trouble with the law for having abortions in Northern Ireland. In 2016, a 19-year-old Belfast university student was shopped to the authorities by her housemates after she’d told them she’d bought drugs online to induce a miscarriage. Police found the foetus inside a black bag in a household bin and the teen received a three-month suspended jail sentence. Meanwhile, one mother, whose case has just been adjourned, was charged for buying her 15-year-old daughter abortion pills online.
In January this year, Sarah Ewart began her challenge against the High Court after she was denied an abortion in 2013, despite the fact that doctors told her that her baby had developed without a skull and wouldn’t survive outside the womb. Instead, she had to travel to England to terminate her pregnancy. Sarah is arguing that the move breached her human rights.
Speaking to reporters outside the court, she said she hoped women “who find themselves in the circumstances that I found myself in will get the help and the treatment that we need in our hospitals with our own medical teams.”
Eleanor*, from Belfast, was 29 when she became pregnant accidentally by her 22-year-old boyfriend of three months, Ben*, in late 2016.
“We’d been using an app to track my cycles, but my period was late,” she says. “I really didn’t expect to be pregnant, so when I decided to do a test just in case and got a positive result, I felt sick. I wasn’t ready to be a mum and I certainly didn’t see a long-term future with Ben, even though he wanted to keep the baby. Knowing I’d have to go to England for a termination was awful.”
As Eleanor had gone to university in Bristol, she arranged to stay with friends there. “I bought my flights and booked myself in at a Marie Stopes clinic for £550, splitting the cost with Ben. I didn’t tell my family as I didn’t want to worry them, but I did confide in two work colleagues who I really trusted as I needed them to cover for me. But there’s always the fear in Northern Ireland that you could be overheard and reported to the police.”
Eleanor was given abortion pills at the clinic, but a week later when she returned for a pregnancy test, it was discovered they hadn’t worked and she was told she’d need to come back for a surgical abortion.
“The whole thing was horrendous,” she remembers. “Until then, I’d been on autopilot, but as I left afterwards with a friend I broke down for the first time. I also had to stay two weeks in Bristol, all unpaid from work.”
Despite the complications, Eleanor knew she’d still made the right decision. “Ben and I broke up soon after the termination,” she says. “Just being with him reminded me of it all. Thankfully, he’s a nice guy so it didn’t cross my mind he might tell the police.
“Two years on, I’m so glad I didn’t have a child with a man who wasn’t right for me,” she says. “Now I’m in an amazing relationship, 12 weeks pregnant and ready to be a mum. I’d never advocate a blasé attitude to contraception or abortion, but it was my body, my choice and it simply doesn’t make sense that a woman should have to go through a pregnancy and bring a child into this world when she doesn’t want to.”
Although an Amnesty poll in October 2018 revealed 75 per cent of people in the UK felt the Northern Ireland abortion laws should change, those who don’t agree are speaking up. Precious Life is the largest pro-life group in Northern Ireland and argues that 300,000 people in the country are vehemently anti-abortion, following a petition they presented to the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2016 calling for the protection of unborn babies from terminations.
Maria Maymes, 22, is an anti-abortion campaigner from Belfast who attends Ulster University and feels many young people are actually strongly pro-life. “Media bias has created this idea that all of us are pro-choice,” she insists. “But when I’m campaigning, I get a very positive reaction from the youth. The negative reactions to our views come mainly from an older demographic.”
However, for Diana, the message is simple. “I’ve been through unthinkable horror with rape, and having to go overseas to get an abortion was the final indignity. No woman should have to go through any of that. That’s why I’m determined to keep fighting for abortion rights in Northern Ireland, and I won’t give up until we’ve won.”
- Source: **Department of Health
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