Today, the UK will take its first step towards legalising abortion in Northern Ireland, as Diana Johnson and a cross-party group of MPs introduce a bill that could decriminalise consensual abortion across the UK. As a new campaign, Now For Northern Ireland, launches, to encourage MPs – and the wider public – to get behind the bill, Northern Irish women share their stories of expensive, traumatic and sometimes dangerous abortions.
“I spent Christmas Day in casualty with my two children. My husband had beaten me to a pulp and had stomped so hard on me that his boot marks were visible on my chest and back,” begins one anonymous account. “He had repeatedly raped me. Six weeks later when I discovered I was pregnant I could not continue with the pregnancy. Knowing my husband would carry out his threats to kill me if he found out, I went to my GP who told me that abortion was illegal in Northern Ireland and refused to help.”
Another case study tells of the time she had to travel back from Manchester, alone. After having an abortion there, “I travelled back to the airport and had to wait quite a few hours for the flight home. Not long after, I began to feel ill. The painkillers hadn’t worn off, but I suspected that I might be reacting to the anaesthetic, as it was something that had happened in the past with a routine medical procedure. It was, and within a short space of time, I was vomiting profusely, had a high temperature and eventually fainted. For the next four hours, I sat in one of the airport cafés beside a bathroom, going between the two and trying not to draw attention to myself.”
For the next four hours, I sat in one of the airport cafés beside a bathroom, going between the two and trying not to draw attention to myself
There are plenty of other stories detailing the struggle that Northern Irish women face in getting an abortion – too many. It’s thought that at least 1,000 women travelled from Northern Ireland to have an abortion in the past year alone, and many, many more took illegal abortion pills at home, which are also illegal, under the same 1861 law that criminalises medical abortions.
The campaign launches on the same day as the results from the first major opinion poll on the subject, carried out by BPAS, and the figures are encouraging. Seventy-eight per cent of respondents in the rest of the UK believe abortion should be decriminalised in Northern Ireland, and 65% of Northern Irish respondents think having an abortion should not be a crime. When you take into account that Ireland recently voted to decriminalise abortion and more than 170 MPs have already expressed their support, it feels as though the bill may well make it through to law.
But the campaign to make abortion legal in Northern Ireland still faces resistance, specifically from the DUP – the party propping up Theresa May’s Conservative government. Whether May will choose to support the new bill will be somewhat of a test for the prime minister, who claims to be a feminist.
Meanwhile, Northern Irish women are still unable to access safe abortions. Until the law changes, Northern Irish women will still have to travel, they will still have to keep secrets, they will still risk their lives.