Pro-choice campaigners take part in a demonstration through Belfast in April, 2016 (Photo: Getty Images)
Pro-choice campaigners take part in a demonstration through Belfast in April, 2016 (Photo: Getty Images)

OPINION

Help end the abortion ban in Northern Ireland this election

It's time for English feminists to show solidarity with women in Northern Ireland, says Siobhan Fenton. Use this snap election to press the issue on your MP, she writes

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By Siobhan Fenton on

For many voters, the pending general election feels a foregone conclusion. The Conservatives seem on course for a strong victory, with the only question about a Tory majority in parliament being not if but by how much. If you’re not a Conservative voter, it’s easy to feel apathetic and a little hopeless about the pending election campaign between now and 8th June.

However, there is one way in which the election can be a little less predictable, and voters can help take a stand for progressive politics. This election can be the one which sees Northern Ireland’s abortion ban struck down and the end of women being arrested for simply accessing reproductive healthcare. 

It’s time Northern Ireland’s abortion ban became an election issue and English politicians were finally held accountable for their silence on the matter. Northern Irish women, like me, desperately need English feminists to stand up for us in solidarity and push the matter into the spotlight during the current election campaigns.

Despite being part of the UK, abortion is a criminal offence in Northern Ireland for almost all circumstances, including rape, incest and when the foetus will be unable to survive outside the womb. Women face up to life in prison for ‘committing’ an abortion in Northern Ireland, where it is legislatively on a par with murder. That means this little pocket of the UK has some of the harshest abortion laws in the world. 

The situation for women in Northern Ireland has always been bad, but worryingly, it is getting even worse. In the last year, a number of women have been arrested on suspicion of committing abortions in Northern Ireland. One young woman, aged just 21, was found guilty of performing an abortion on herself at home in Belfast and given a suspended sentence. Another woman is currently awaiting trial charged with helping her 15-year-old daughter perform an abortion on herself in Northern Ireland too. The Northern Irish police also carried out a number of raids on women’s homes on International Women’s Day this year, to investigate allegations they may be hiding abortion pills.

Sadly, Northern Irish women have been ignored on this issue for years. Northern Ireland is a tiny region of the UK and our complex politics due to the Troubles conflict means the main British parties don’t run or have elected politicians here. This unfortunately means that there are no votes to be won here, and subsequently scant incentive, for English politicians or parties to address the topic.

Women in Northern Ireland desperately need solidarity from feminists in Great Britain to show that MPs at Westminster can no longer get away with ignoring Northern Ireland’s abortion ban

Therefore, politicians in Great Britain seldom acknowledge Northern Ireland’s abortion ban but when they do, they always insist that healthcare is a devolved issue, meaning it is not up to Westminster to intervene, only Northern Irish politicians at Stormont can do so.

However, this is no longer the case. In November 2015, the Belfast High Court ruled that Northern Ireland’s abortion ban is a breach of international and UK human rights law. Stormont has since voted on the issue and decided to keep the ban, ignoring the legal judgement. While healthcare is a devolved issue, human rights are not. Westminster is responsible for ensuring UK citizens’ human rights are not breached, meaning MPs in London are now responsible for Northern Ireland’s abortion ban. It has been a year and a half since the High Court ruling and MPs in London have still failed to act. They can be allowed to do so no longer. We need the English electorate to hold them to account for this human rights failure and push for English MPs to promise to decriminalise abortion in Northern Ireland through a vote at Westminster.

I grew up in Belfast and when I first moved to England for university, I was shocked by how little English women, including proud feminists, often know about the nightmarish laws their fellow UK citizens are subjected to across the Irish Sea and indeed the role of English politicians in letting it happen. However, I have found that when English feminists realise the reality of Northern Ireland’s laws they have been very sympathetic and eager to help. 

Last year, I and hundreds of other Northern Irish, South Irish and English women in London set up the London Irish Abortion Rights Campaign for people based in the city who are fighting against abortion laws across the island of Ireland. It has been heartwarming to see the number of English, Irish and Northern Irish people coming together to push for change on an issue which should have long ago been consigned to history.

Since Theresa May called the snap election, we have written to Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the SNP and the Greens, calling on them to make a manifesto pledge saying they’ll support ending Northern Ireland’s abortion ban.

We’re also asking feminists in Great Britain to raise the issue of Northern Ireland’s abortion ban with their election candidates when they’re campaigning for their votes. Whether its on the doorstep or through social media, ask your candidates what steps they’ll take if elected to ensure no more Northern Irish women are arrested for having abortions. 

Women in Northern Ireland desperately need solidarity from feminists in Great Britain to show that MPs at Westminster can no longer get away with ignoring Northern Ireland’s abortion ban. Whether its through sending a tweet, writing a Facebook post, or sharing this article, a show of solidarity with Northern Irish women during this election could be our best chance of finally ending the nightmarish laws women are subjected to and the blind eye that British MPs are shamefully turning to it.

@SiobhanFenton

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Pro-choice campaigners take part in a demonstration through Belfast in April, 2016 (Photo: Getty Images)
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Abortion
Ireland
Opinion

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