There has been a substantial amount of media coverage across the United Kingdom on the issues surrounding outdated human rights laws in Northern Ireland. These issues have gained increasing scrutiny as a result of the partnership between the Conservative Party and the DUP or Democratic Unionist Party, the leading political party in Northern Ireland. Undoubtedly, the lack of free, safe and legal access to abortion in Northern Ireland has become a national human rights concern.
The DUP have been robust in their anti-abortion rhetoric since forming in 1971 and have vetoed any progressive changes to the law with vigour. Arlene Foster, leader of the DUP and First Minister of Northern Ireland until the collapse of the power sharing executive in January 2017, said in an interview with The Guardian in 2016 “I would not want abortion to be as freely available here as it is in England and don’t support the extension of the 1967 act.”
Foster has spoken out against any changes in the Northern Irish assembly on a number of occasions and with increasing demand on Westminster as a result of an amendment forcing the Northern Ireland secretary, Karen Bradley, “to issue guidance” to explain how officials can continue to enforce the 1861 Offence’s Against The Person Act, which criminalises abortion even in cases of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormality, on women in Northern Ireland.
Whilst recent changes made, which now allow women from NI to receive access to free abortions via NHS England (should they be able to make the journey overseas), are welcomed by pro-choice activists, it is understandable that many people have been left feeling apprehensive about how the remaining situation within Northern Ireland may develop going forward.
Until an announcement by Justine Greening, Minister for Women and Equalities on 29th June 2017, many women travelling from NI to seek an abortion in England would never have been able to afford the fees of the treatment on top of travel, accommodation and time off work. The costs of private abortions typically range from £500 for the abortion (which can be taken up to nine weeks into a pregnancy) to about £800 for abortions up to 18 weeks; for abortions after 18 weeks a patient can expect to pay up to £2000.
With these financial demands in mind, there is no denying that the changes help lessen the burden of women seeking a termination in NI. However. there are many other complex issues at hand within this framework of perceived reform and what this recent development at Westminster recognise is that we must remember that it is still illegal for women to access abortion in NI.
It is still the case that any woman in need of an abortion as a result of rape or incest must travel overseas, often alone, to seek what can be an intrusive and traumatic procedure. They must embark upon this terrifying and isolating experience, only to return home to NI, where they can expect to receive no access to what is often necessary counselling or appropriate mental health support, and only limited support at the hands of a small number of dedicated volunteer services.
The disparity in the fundamental human rights granted to women in Northern Ireland, compared to those paying the same tax and contributing to the same society just a 40 min flight away are still grossly unjust. When we think of breaches in human rights relating to gender inequality, we so often look abroad for examples of injustice, and yet only two years ago, a 19 year old female student was given a suspended sentence after her housemates reported her to the police for obtaining abortion pills online, after she had failed to raise sufficient funds for the trip to England within the narrow timeline during which a termination can be carried out.
Now, with a criminal record for seeking a basic human right, the course of her professional and personal life will be altered forever; not to mention the emotional anguish and trauma from such an experience.
We must end the suffering and condemnation of women whose lives are destroyed simply for seeking a termination. We must continue engaging, campaigning and raising awareness of the plight of vulnerable women across Northern Ireland. How else can we expect our government, a perceived beacon of liberal democracy which so often offers support to those most disadvantaged in society around the globe, to fulfill its duty when we can’t even offer our own citizens the basic human rights they deserve?