There is one quote that always comes to mind when thinking about these issues: “One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” (MLK Jnr) This remains true for Northern Ireland.
What is the purpose of the PSNI? To protect? To uphold the law? I’m not convinced that the PSNI are using their resources as effectively as they could be. During a time of cuts to every part of the public sector, you would think that the work of the police force would reflect that, and not concern themselves with frivolous issues that would be of no concern to their counterparts in any other region of the UK. What service is the police really providing us? If they are going after women who are isolated and trapped; those that are the most vulnerable in society. No one induces a medical abortion because they want to. It is when it is of absolute necessity. Our political representatives don't seem to recognise that they are breeching international human rights law by denying access to abortion, but is it to much to ask for our police force have some empathy?
If our own attorney general is making reference to the punishment for abortion is life imprisonment that is laid out in the 1861 Act and claiming that ‘nothing like that would ever be imposed,’ in the supreme court of the UK, then why do we still retain that statute? Why then do we have a police force raiding the homes of those ordering abortion pills online and the workshops of activists who are procuring pills to give to those who cannot afford to travel? Make no mistake that this is a class issue. We have one rule for the rich and one for the poor - who may get touted on by their housemates and receive a three month suspended sentence. Just last week the Scottish government (*gasp* a functioning devolved legislature!) decided that abortion pills would be made readily available to be taken in the safety of one’s home. This is a reminder of how much our laws, as well as those who enforce them, are going out of their way to punish women for something that should be so easily accessible. If abortion remains illegal in NI and abortion pills remain unregulated, we may end up with instances where women receive abortion pills online which are unsafe. Then we can only hypothesise what will happen if there’s a case where a woman has a bad reaction or a prolonged bleed. Is she going to have to stop and think about seeking medical attention, with there being the ever present threat of being taken in to questioning or potentially prosecution? Our laws protect no one and enforcing it is discriminatory to those of lower socio-economic background.
Yet it is not just the pro-choice movement that the police are heavy-handed in their approach towards. Progressive movements across NI are being targeted at all angles. LGBTQ+ activists, whose forms of activism are not illegal, alas the PSNI have found ways to intimidate those who stand up against the DUP’s homophobic social policies. We have seen police officers turning up at the doors of pride activists for having the slogan ‘f**k the DUP’ on a placard. Since when is the use of a curse word a criminal offence? It may cause offence to some but I thought it was supposed to be us millennials that are the ‘hyper-sensitive snowflakes’ that need safe spaces, not the human rights–denying, right-wing politicians who are out in full force, making complaints to the PSNI. This is just simply a time and resource wasting exercise. There was no threat of immediate harm being done, so one has to question if Jim Wells would have been as quick to pick up the phone and report a hate crime if it was done in the festive spirit of the 12th of July rather than during pride. This is also throws the impartiality of the police into question.
We know bias in the police can exist. We see it too often in the US where another police officer gets no punishment for killing an unarmed black man every other week. We know that our own police force has a history of systemic sectarianism, and its makeup will probably never truly reflect the ratio of nationalist to unionist population we have in NI. But the focus now is on something more than that. In the past week the PSNI have started hosting recruitment events for the LGBTQ+ community. As of August 2017 the composition of the PSNI shows that women make up only 29% of police officers. It is hard enough to be a woman or a member of the LGBTQ+ community and be a police officer anywhere, but it remains unfathomable for many in NI.
There is always the argument that the police can only enforce the laws that exist. It is not for them to take the laws into their own hands, nor is it up to them who is prosecuted or who gets jail time. But they are an important piece in the criminal justice process and the first port of call when it comes to dealing with these issues.
Until we have complete abortion reform – and not just extension of the 1967 act, we hope that no other woman’s house is raided or abortion pills seized. The progressives of Northern Ireland will continue to live in defiance of the law as long as the law remains.
Eimear O'Donoghue is a third year law with politics student at QUB.