In the context of an uncertain border question, an absent Executive and the relentless denial of our right to choose, pregnant people in Northern Ireland find themselves falling through the cracks of our constitutional arrangement. As Irish and Northern Irish citizens we face explicit discrimination from our governments, whilst as part of the UK we’re treated as second class citizens.
This denial of rights isn’t unique to Northern Ireland: South of the border, the UN has affirmed that the denial of abortion rights in the Republic of Ireland is ‘cruel, inhumane and degrading’. The Human Rights committee has called for legislative reform twice within the last 15 months, saying that current legislation violates the state’s human rights obligations.
There is undeniably a rising tide of support for the Repeal campaign in the Republic of Ireland, perhaps most evident in the successful Citizen’s Assembly vote last April, in which 52-29 voted to recommend allowing access to abortion regardless of reason. These findings are currently under review by the Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment.
With Leo Varadkar announcing provisional plans for a referendum on abortion to take place in May or June of 2018, we could be on the brink of real change for Irish women. We’ve seen the possibilities of progressive momentum in the Republic with the equal marriage vote in 2015, and can only hope that same momentum will drive the upcoming referendum too. Since the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Irish women are entitled to Irish citizenship on the same grounds as those in the Republic. If the campaign for Repeal is successful, this citizenship could provide a path to safe and legal abortions for many Northern Irish women, albeit not at home in NI.
The other side of the coin is our place in the United Kingdom, and the devolution of ‘conscience issues’. Human rights are not a devolved issue. Northern Irish women, trans and non-binary people are legally UK citizens. Our sisters in England, Scotland and Wales have been protected by the 1967 Abortion Act for 50 years whilst the women of Northern Ireland have gone ignored. We do not hold the same human rights as our fellow UK citizens because we do not have equal access to the same healthcare.
Stella Creasy’s amendment, securing NHS funding for Northern Irish women to get abortions in England, is a huge step forward. This guarantees a minimum saving of £330 to anyone travelling for an abortion. However, those making the journey will still have to finance flights, other transport, accommodation, childcare and time off work.
Beyond the economics, there are a host of potential constraints which can’t be solved through legislation. There will always be women who cannot travel due to their circumstances; such as familial pressure, community stigma, abusive partners, and even the practical viability of making the journey due to age, health or immigration status. The reality is that access to abortion is shaped by factors beyond finances.
Those who cannot make the journey due to financial, social, or situational constraints are stripped of the right to bodily autonomy which they ought to hold as British citizens. The Department of Health estimates that 52,092 Northern Irish women have travelled to Britain for abortions since 1980. This figure almost certainly obscures the scale of this issue, as some women may have to give false details out of fear or shame. Moreover, the rise of women procuring abortion pills online in order to go through with a safe at-home termination can’t be numerically recorded because these women risk arrest and jail time by seeking to control their own bodies.
The decision to undergo an abortion is a personal and difficult one. The additional trauma of an expensive and unnecessary journey just to access this basic healthcare is callous and unacceptable. For abortion to be free, safe, legal and accessible, it must be available here, at home, in Northern Ireland.
Having been absent for 9 months, the Northern Ireland Executive continue to fail us on issues beyond our reproductive rights. Since 2012, the DUP have utilised the petition of concern on 5 occasions to block equal marriage legislation in the Assembly, despite the latest Ipsos MORI poll showing 68% of NI voters support equal marriage – even higher than the 62% successful ‘yes’ vote in the Republic. So long as the DUP can continue to abuse the petition of concern, they can continue to ignore the demands and rights of the Northern Irish people.
Between reproductive rights and marriage rights, it’s abundantly clear that the social climate of post-conflict Northern Ireland has outgrown the representative deadlock which is guaranteed by our power sharing arrangement. As part of the UK, Northern Irish women are not treated as full citizens. As part of Ireland, we continue to face discrimination from both sides of the border. If the upcoming referendum is successful, then we will not be treated as full Irish citizens in Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland needs its young people, and particularly its women, to stay in the region and invest our time and energy into fixing our politics, enriching our cultural landscape and driving our economy. But if our human rights continue to be denied here at home, it’s likely that more and more Northern Irish young women will choose to live in other parts of the UK and Ireland, and further afield. Choosing to stay at home shouldn’t mean losing your right to choose.
If Northern Ireland wants to keep its young women, it’s high time we’re treated as full citizens, with equal access to basic healthcare.
I’ll be joining thousands of Irish and Northern Irish women this Saturday for the Abortion Rights Campaign’s 6th Annual March for Choice, attending a solidarity event with the London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign outside the Irish embassy in London. We’ll be calling for choice, and making a tally mark on the pavement for each of the 205,704 Irish and Northern Irish women forced to travel to Britain for abortions since the Eighth Amendment in 1983.
Jemima Higgins is a 20-year old student from Belfast, studying Politics and Social Anthropology at Cambridge University. She’s particularly interested in Digital Anthropology, focusing on the social implications of digital interaction from a feminist perspective.