Northern Ireland one of 'most restrictive abortion regimes'

Ban, including in cases of rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormality, sees women travel to England for procedure.

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    Campaigners supporting a change in abortion laws in Northern Ireland outside the Supreme Court, Central London, Britain [File: Will Oliver/EPA]
    Campaigners supporting a change in abortion laws in Northern Ireland outside the Supreme Court, Central London, Britain [File: Will Oliver/EPA]

    TIMELINE

    • 1861: Abortion banned in Ireland under UK Offences Against the Person Act. Remains in place after Irish independence 1922
    • 1967: UK Abortion Act 1967 grants abortion in UK but not Northern Ireland
    • May 25, 2018: Republic of Ireland votes to repeal Eighth Amendment, paving way for terminations to 12 weeks
    • June 7, 2018: UK Supreme Court says status quo is incompatible with human rights law in cases of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormality

    Ashleigh Topley, from Portadown, Northern Ireland, recalled a harrowing stage in her own pregnancy when she was "willing her [child's] heart to stop" so she could begin the grieving process.

    At her 20-week scan in 2013, Topley was told that her baby had a fatal foetal abnormality and would not survive outside the womb. 

    Refused a termination, she became reclusive as her pregnancy progressed and she developed "a very large obvious bump".

    "If I did leave the house, people would stop me and ask me when I was due, what I was having and whether I was excited," said the 31-year-old. "Sometimes I would tell people that everything was fine because it was easier than telling them the truth and watch their face crumple into shock and disbelief."

    She carried her baby for a further 15 weeks before going into labour when her child died.

    She now has a daughter and is an activist with Alliance for Choice, which campaigns for abortion rights in Northern Ireland.

    Anna, who is now 27, grew up believing that abortion was wrong. 

    So when she became pregnant at 21 as a college student by her then-boyfriend of three months, the Northern Irishwoman was adamant to keep her child.

    "Abortion was always something that we were told was wrong when we were kids at school, so I thought, 'no, that's not something I could do,'" said Anna, whose name has been changed to protect her identity at her own request.

    But weeks later, having changed her mind and decided to terminate the pregnancy, the Belfast native was sitting on a plane - "blood soaked through my jeans" - returning to Northern Ireland after an abortion in England.

    "I was crying my head off," she told Al Jazeera. "I was in so much pain - it was awful."

    She had a medical abortion, which involved taking tablets over two days. The cost of the trip left her under further financial strain.

    "I had no money, no job, I was from a very lower working class family, and I was very young, so I couldn't give a child a good life," said Anna, who now works as a digital marketer.

    Anna's story and Topley's experience are not uncommon.

    Northern Ireland, the smallest of Britain's four constituent nations, has the toughest abortion laws in the United Kingdom.

    In contrast to England, Scotland and Wales, where terminations are carried out up to 24 weeks, an abortion is only permitted in Northern Ireland if a woman's life is at risk or there is a serious or permanent risk to her physical or mental health. 

    Rape or incest victims must continue with pregnancies, as well as women carrying a foetus with a fatal abnormality, according to the law.

    I had no money, no job, I was from a very lower working class family, and I was very young, so I couldn't give a child a good life.

    Anna, 27

    A referendum abortion vote in May in neighbouring Republic of Ireland, which saw a landslide in favour of repealing the state's near-total ban on terminations, has highlighted how limiting the Northern Irish law is.

    In 2016, 724 women from Northern Ireland, which has a population of 1.8 million, had a termination in England or Wales, according to We Trust Women, a campaign to decriminalise abortion in the UK. 

    The UK's 1967 Abortion Act - which established the practice of lawful abortions across Great Britain - was never applied in Northern Ireland.

    "Northern Ireland has one of the most restrictive abortion regimes in Europe," Catherine O'Rourke, a lecturer in human rights and international law at Northern Ireland's Ulster University, told Al Jazeera.

    But so-called pro-choice activists believe that change is afoot.

    The Republic of Ireland's vote is expected to allow women to have terminations within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. 

    In early June, the UK Supreme Court said the current legislation was incompatible with human rights law, in cases of fatal foetal abnormality and sexual crime.

    'Alliance for Choice' and other pro-choice groups from both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, join 'Processions' women's march for more liberal abortion laws in Northern Ireland in Belfast, Britain [Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters]

    Are public attitudes changing?

    On its website, the Northern Irish group Precious Life condemns abortion as a "brutal" and "silent holocaust".

    "In the 20 years I have been active campaigning on the streets or through different awareness campaigns or lobby campaigns, I don't see any demand from the individual [in Northern Ireland], people on the street and across the political divide, regardless of their faith, for a change in the law," Bernadette Smyth, founder of Precious Life, told Al Jazeera.

    But public attitudes are changing, according to an Ulster University study using data from the 2016 Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey. For example, 63 percent said it was "a woman's right to choose whether or not to have an abortion".

    The referendum result in the Irish Republic was soon followed by calls on social media such as #NowForNI and #TheNorthIsNext on Twitter.

    O'Rourke, the human rights lecturer, said there was "an unprecedented level of momentum" for change as pressure grows for leaders to act.

    But reform remains elusive. 

    Abortion is a devolved matter in Northern Ireland but the Northern Irish Assembly has not sat since January 2017 due to a political impasse. 

    The Westminster parliament in London, therefore, has become the focal point for reformers. 

    UK Prime Minister Theresa May has so far resisted calls to intervene - not least because of Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party, which props up May's Conservative government at Westminster and is vehemently anti-abortion rights.

    Back in Northern Ireland, Anna and Topley said they were encouraged by the referendum result in the Republic, and hoped for change.

    But Anna remains cautious about sharing her own story in a country where women have faced prosecution for circumventing abortion laws.

    "If someone is having a chat about abortion at work, I feel like I'm sitting there sweating, I can't say anything, and I wouldn't feel comfortable telling people [about my experience]," she said. "You hear people's opinions and you do realise that it is still very divisive." 

    A man holds a banner as pro-choice groups from both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, join the 'Processions' women's march for more liberal abortion laws in Northern Ireland in Belfast, Britain [Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters]

    Follow Alasdair Soussi on Twitter: @AlasdairSoussi

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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