Who would have thought that, I, a nineteen-year-old Northern Irish female, could be criminalised for wanting control over my own body? Who would have through that 20 years after the Good Friday Agreement, we would still be having the same conversations over and over again about individuals being able to control their own bodily anatomy.
I have campaigned heavily for changes to the law both in Northern Ireland and Ireland over the past couple of years. I am delighted to see that the Irish government have welcomed a referendum on the eighth amendment, that will be held in May 2018. However, with stalemate in Northern Ireland, no legislation is being proposed or even developed.
20 years since the Good Friday Agreement and we have no government. Two parties unable to work together but the people continue to vote for. When I was learning about politics at 16, I learnt how to vote. I learnt what an STV was and how it worked. It taught me that my vote always counted no matter who I voted for. Being taught this allowed me to vote on what I believed instead of the colours a party stood for. I am so passionate about reproductive rights, and I believe that this should be one of the biggest issues to be dealt with on both sides of the border. When it comes to other issues like Same Sex Marriage and an Irish Language Act in Northern Ireland, these pieces of legislation are guaranteed at any time due to majorities in the Assembly. But abortion is another story.
Firstly, despite Northern Ireland being a part of the UK, abortion is illegal in almost every circumstance, including when the pregnancy is at the result of rape or incest, and when the foetus has a fatal abnormality that means it would not survive outside the womb. Health policy is part of the devolved powers transferred to the Northern Ireland Assembly by the Northern Ireland Act of 1998 in the frame of the devolution in the UK. Unlike the rest of the UK, the 1967 Abortion Act does not extend to NI meaning women must travel to the UK, and sometimes further, to access this healthcare.
However, although it is illegal to have an abortion in Northern Ireland. Many clinics were set up to help give individuals support and information on how to access the healthcare needed. The Marie Stopes Clinic is probably one of the best-known abortion clinics in Belfast that offered support to individuals in need of an abortion. I fully supported all clinics set up to help individuals and I know many people who were escorts at the clinics who told me how traumatising it can be to help walk an individual through the front doors, whilst being called a murderer. In March 2013, Jim Wells MLA tried to put a halt to these private clinics by proposing that abortion could only be carried out in NHS hospitals, however, the proposed amendment did not become law.
Clare Bailey MLA, presented a 45,000-strong petition gathered by Amnesty International to the Northern Ireland Assembly calling for change to Northern Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws in November 2016.
Bailey stated, “Northern Ireland’s abortion laws are in breach of minimum human rights standards; which had been declared by the court. Over 70% of people in Northern Ireland want to see abortion laws changed. Despite this overwhelming endorsement of change; when the issue was brought before the Assembly in February, just fifty-nine MLAs blocked even the most minimal of reforms.”
However, only weeks later Stormont collapsed and nothing has been done since. I feel as if sometimes people don’t vote on the policy a party stands for but more for the colours the individual stands for. They may be in favour of abortion but they can’t steer away from their political beliefs.
In 2017, the Supreme Court ruled that women who travel from NI to England cannot receive free abortion under the NHS. The vote was divided at three votes to two but all five judges agreed that the current situation discriminates against women resides in NI. However, less than two weeks later, MPs voted in favour to allow free NHS abortions. But this isn’t enough in my opinion. Why should I have to flee my own country to access basic healthcare? Our government should be looking at ways to help individuals instead of causing them more stress and trauma.
And we still have very little progress due to the lack of a government in Northern Ireland. I feel disheartened at the moment due to the lack of an assembly but also the lack of legislation around this matter. By giving individuals the opportunity to travel to the UK to access free abortions is still a breach of human rights and does not make the situation any easier for the individual.
Moving on to Ireland, individuals are suffering under the country’s harsh abortion ban, under a law that is outdated and discriminatory. Abortions are a crime in all circumstances except one – when the individual’s life is deemed to be at risk. This means pushing individuals to the brink and needlessly endangering their lives, which is appalling to think that an individual’s life has to be judged on whether they could be close to death or not.
An individual cannot have an abortion if they have been raped or as a result of incest. Even when the foetus has no chance of survival whatsoever, an individual must go through the traumatic experience of carrying it to term and giving birth to a baby that cannot survive. This is outrageous considering it is not always the individuals fault for falling pregnant. It is a disgrace that the State is willing to punish an individual for something they did not bring upon themselves.
In October 2012, Savita Halappanavar died in Galway University Hospital a week after she was admitted while pregnant. Her husband says she repeatedly asked for her pregnancy to be terminated but this was refused due to a foetal heartbeat. At that time the medical team had not diagnosed her with a blood infection, and her request was denied as they did not judge that her life was in danger. When they determined that Savita’s life was in danger they had planned to administer misoprostol to induce delivery, but the miscarriage completed before they were able to. I wish Ireland could look beyond the law and look to its people. Savita’s life could have been saved if she had of been giving the choice to have an abortion. It is a disgrace to think that she is only one of many who have been in similar situations to her.
In 2017, it was confirmed that Ireland would have a referendum on abortion. I believe this will finally allow the country to move on from the dark past it once had and into a brighter future where individuals can control their own bodies. But this also then opens up change for NI. Both these countries have been on a long journey over the past 20 years, and I hope that with the Irish referendum in May, we will finally see safe, free and legal healthcare for individuals.
I sometimes feel that we cannot refer to this issue as abortion as it is known as the dreaded term, but no matter what you call it, it’s an abortion that an individual has. It happens. Everyday. We have individuals from both Northern Ireland and Ireland who travel to other parts of the UK just to have an abortion. No matter what the case may be: rape; a couple who are not financially stable; a one-night stand; a foetal fatal abnormality; or risk to the individual’s life. This issue is not for me to judge. the issue is not for you to judge. Every individual has their own personal reason.
20 years on from the Good Friday Agreement and nothing has changed. I hope that in another 20 years time I’m not stillcampaigning for reproductive rights because if I wanted the government in my womb, I’d sleep with an MLA. I hope by this time we have a new generation of locally elected politicians sitting in Stormont creating new legislation that will benefit everyone and not just one belief system.
Emma is a 19 year old Northern Irish intersectional feminist from Crossgar. She is currently on a gap year but planning to go to Queens to study French and Politics. Her interests include reproductive rights, animal welfare and integrated education. She is an aspiring politician, Green Party Executive Officer and a human rights advocate. She is writing in a personal capacity.