The reality of abortion in Northern Ireland

Roisin Maguire

Now that the Repeal movement has succeeded in the majority of Ireland, the movement now turns to focus on the rights of women in Northern Ireland – which are a separate story entirely.

Northern Irelands abortion laws are a breach to the human rights commitments, the Belfast high court ruled on Thursday, October 3rd. 

The current abortion law in Northern Ireland is different from that in the rest of the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland’s strict abortion laws saw some women given a 14-year sentence for having an abortion. The Abortion Act 1967 which applies in England, Scotland and Wales has never extended to Northern Ireland.

Common law, applied in the UK, has interpreted ‘preserving the life of the woman’ to mean that if a doctor is of the reasonable opinion that the probable consequence of the continuation of the pregnancy is to make a woman a ‘physical or mental wreck’ that will have ‘real and serious’ effects that would be ‘permanent or long term’, then the doctor is ‘operating for the purpose of preserving the life of the woman’.

This comes after a case brought by Sarah Ewart in 2013 who was denied an abortion when her scans showed that she was carrying a foetus that would not survive. She had to travel to London to have an abortion and returned to Northern Ireland. Here she began her six-year legal process to change this law for other women who might find themselves in the same situation.

According to The Guardian, Mrs. Justice Siobhan Keegan told the courtroom of the testimony Ewart gave explaining the “horror” she endured. “She has been affected by the current law in that she has had to travel to seek an abortion in desperate circumstances…She has had to modify her behaviour in that she could not have medical treatment in Northern Ireland due to the risk of criminal prosecution.”

Justice Keegan said that no other woman should have to face what Ewart did and that she had followed the ruling on Thursday that Northern Ireland’s abortion laws breached human rights.

Another case similar to this is a Belfast woman who is facing prosecution for providing her daughter (15) with abortion pills in 2013. This woman will go on trial in November, later this year. This woman said that she has lost all faith in doctors because it was her GP who alerted the police to the case.

The woman is facing two charges. Firsly, unlawful procurement of a poison or other noxious thing, namely mifepristone, and misoprostol, knowing that the same was intended to be unlawfully used or employed with intent to procure a miscarriage of the second applicant. Secondly, unlawful supplying a poison or other noxious thing, namely mifepristone, and misoprostol, knowing that the same was intended to be unlawfully used or employed with intent to procure a miscarriage of the second applicant.

The abortion pills used in illegal abortion cases are Mifepristone and Misoprostol which are listed as essential medications by the World Health Organisation. Women in Nothern Ireland buy these pills illegally online and take these without medical supervision, risking their lives because they cannot afford to travel for a safe abortion.

Amnesty International published details of this case on their website in 2018 and outlined how it goes much deeper than just providing abortion pills. They said: “At the time, the daughter was in a physically and mentally abusive relationship. When she became pregnant, she sought her mother’s support and assistance to have an abortion, having decided she did not want to continue with the pregnancy. When the pregnancy was terminated, they went to their GP seeking counselling services to deal with issues around the relationship. During the appointment, they disclosed the use of the pills.”

Speaking with the chairperson of DCU’s feminism society, Eimear Kelly said: “We at femsoc are ecstatic to hear of the high court ruling as it represents a real step in the right direction regarding reproductive rights in Northern Ireland. We have always believed abortion access in an all-island issue and are so thankful that pregnant persons in Northern Ireland are one step closer to seeing legal abortion care becoming a reality.” 

She went on to say that their society“will continue to fight alongside those in need of abortive care until access to treatment is seen as the human right it should be seen as. This is truly a victory in our eyes but we are not giving up the fight just yet.”

Currently, in the Republic of Ireland, many people still participate in protests such as March for Choice so that women in the north can access safe health care that is provided for free, the same health care that women in the republic can now access.

The UK Government has since published guidelines that medical professionals will follow on abortion law and the termination of pregnancy. These guidelines outline that “if the Northern Ireland Executive has not reformed on or before 21 October 2019”, these laws will not be implemented. 

This report stated that only 12 abortions were performed in Northern Ireland under the current laws in 2017 and 2018. It also said: “In 2018, 1,053 women travelled to England from Northern Ireland for an abortion procedure funded by the UK Government and other women may have chosen to travel to other countries including Scotland.”

If Stormont assembly is not restored by the 21st of October, medical professionals who are approached by a woman considering an abortion, must “provide her with the number for the Central Booking Service in England or  call the helpline on behalf of the woman.”

If developed government is not running by that date, the government will introduce new regulations to provide better access to abortions by April 2020. 

Amnesty International who offered support of the Ewart case said that this is a legal landmark. “Today’s ruling shows just how urgently we need change so that we can access this healthcare without having to travel and without being treated as criminals.”

The Democratic Unionist Party, who are against abortion have made no comment on this.

Roisin Maguire

Image credit: Chloe Rooney