On returning home to NI after my first year in Manchester, I am strongly reminded just how inextricably linked politics is with culture here.
Following the momentous referendum held in the Republic of Ireland on 25th May, I’m writing about something extremely topical and controversial across the whole island:
I acknowledge that abortion, like many other ethical issues, is never straightforward.
There’s no black and white; it’s a complete grey area.
Although Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, the 1967 Abortion Act is not implemented here; therefore, it is not entirely legal to terminate a pregnancy in NI.
This post is not an enforcement of my political nor religious views, but simply I am relating my views as a Northern Irish woman.
‘Repeal the 8th!’ A historic landslide victory for the Republic of Ireland.
The Republic’s referendum whether to repeal or retain the constitutional ban on abortion resulted in an astounding two thirds opting for YES. The result of the referendum will now be presented to the Dáil (the Irish gov) in order to ‘Repeal the 8th’ amendment from the constitution.
Where does NORTHERN Ireland stand in this?
According to the Family Planning Association, 95% of women in NI are refused an abortion even under the circumstances of: diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality, rape, incest. In limited circumstances, an abortion can be obtained if there is a severe risk to a mother’s physical or mental health. (evidence)
It is estimated there are 800 Northern Irish women who travel to England every year to obtain a ‘legal’ abortion. However, it is not always free through the NHS, nor is a woman guaranteed aftercare on return to NI. This often means funding it themselves, on top of travel and accommodation expenses. For some, this is not affordable and so women resort to buying online pills. This was the reality for a 19-year-old girl from Belfast in 2015. She received a suspended sentence for buying pills online with the intent to induce a miscarriage.
Self-medicating to terminate a pregnancy is dangerous and it is heart-breaking women across the country find themselves in this situation, facing prosecution for doing so.
No woman should be made a criminal for wanting an abortion.
Two key problems for Northern Ireland:
- Changing the abortion law is a sensitive and devolved matter. This means it is up to the Northern Irish Executive to decide on any action taken. And, after 18 months of no executive power, I am frustrated wondering whether this issue will ever be addressed by our non-existing government.
- The matter lies in the DUP’s hands. On saying that, their views are strongly pro-life and will make any amendment to the current legislation difficult. Leader of the DUP, Arlene Foster, stated “Friday’s referendum has no impact on the law in NI.”(evidence)
However, I believe the strength of the ‘Yes’ vote in the South of Ireland stands as a strong example for the rest of the island. Irish society has changed and the people have responded by reacting to the outstanding social issues that needed addressed.
Sinn Fein politician, Mary Lou McDonald, stated the vote was “a roar of the people” and it was “years in the making.” (The Sunday Politics show, BBC1, 27/5/18). The victory of the yes vote has demonstrated a seismic change in a Catholic country where many of its citizens have put aside their religious, ethical and moral personal beliefs, in order to prioritise the rights of the modern woman.
“Northern Ireland, you’re NEXT.”
It is imperative to look at this issue from a Northern Irish woman’s perspective. It’s simply not acceptable that women do not have access to the same rights of healthcare as other women in the UK and now in the Republic of Ireland. Regardless of the law, it is fact that women will always need an abortion. In 2013, the NI Human Rights Commission advised the Department of Justice that the existing law undermined the human rights of women and girls. (evidence)
Does this ring any alarm bells?
‘The 1861 Offences Against The Person Act’ form the basis of Northern Irish abortion laws. A Victorian and archaic law, it is outdated and many of our politicians need to realise society is constantly modernising and requires us to make changes accordingly.
Naomi McAuliffe, Amnesty International My Body My Right campaign manager, stated “People who are against abortion are not going to stop it, but instead are making sure that women seek unsafe abortions instead.”(evidence)
Amnesty International have been a huge driving force behind the “Repeal the 8th” Campaign in the South of Ireland and they raised the belief that NI would be likely to vote the same way if a referendum was to occur in Northern Ireland. (Evidence from the NI Life and Times surveys 2016. (evidence) )
The abortion question in Northern Ireland is not a question of whether you align yourself with being British or Irish. It’s not a religious nor a moral matter, but it’s about allowing the women of Northern Ireland to have access to the same healthcare rights as other women across the UK and the Republic of Ireland.
I do love my “wee country.” But really, there comes a time when the political situation drives me to hate it and anywhere else is like a breath of fresh air.
I am so frustrated sometimes by its limitations, hindering the chances to provide opportunities. I can only hope in the coming years we see a change in legislation and NI is a place where women’s rights are no longer violated.