The 1st of April 2020.
A day that was expected to be historic, freeing and equal for the women of Northern Ireland. Instead it appears to be more of an April Fool’s.
As of the 21st of October last year, abortion was decriminalised in this corner of the UK, aligning this country with the rest of the British Isles. Northern Ireland has been somewhat of a traditional country, but inside several months, dramatic political changes have been made. UUP MLA Robert Butler has said that abortion being “on-demand” was one of the “darkest days” as he saw it. But as of yet, it has been all talk and not enough action.
It was understood that provisions were to be set in place to offer the safe termination of pregnancies here by the start of April. However, women here were still being instructed to travel to England for terminations as there is no access available yet. Although with the global health pandemic that is Covid-19, worsening, this has halted the entire world meaning major travel reductions will remain a huge obstacle for women of Northern Ireland. Most abortion clinics remain open, although some have closed due to precautionary measures in containment of the virus. The NHS and HSC have said that they are delaying non-emergency procedures and operations to prioritise those who have contracted the latest virus and health trusts are trying to refrain from having unnecessary amounts of people in their waiting rooms. However, for abortions to be authorised, 2 doctors need to permit the termination, based on the grounds that it compromises the physical or mental wellbeing of the mother, there is serious risk to her life, the baby may be born with severe birth defects and of course that it is inside the 24 week period. And medics are already stretched to their limits. So, are doctors expected to give medical and surgical abortions a backseat? Do abortions qualify as essential and emergency healthcare?
And has Covid-19 only posed as an excuse for the Northern Ireland Executive?
Northern Ireland is still falling behind with no official guidance on the subject. Health Minister, Robin Swann, has said that the “Department of Health NI has an agreement in place with the Department of Health and Social Care however the emergence of Covid19 means that the arrangement now needs reviewed.” He said that the action on abortion is being considered “urgently” but that ultimately “give the significance and sensitivity of the issue, it will be a decision for the Executive”.
As a substitute for women travelling to these clinics throughout the Covid-19, it was announced earlier this week that women in England, Scotland and Wales are now temporarily able to access abortion pills from their own home for pregnancies up to 10 weeks. The advice on the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) website instructs women to call the helpline (0333 252 7670) and have an over the phone consultation first before they can access the pills. The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists voted in favour of this choice rather than leave women with no option, or perhaps other non-safe options.
News that had broken earlier in the week of a Northern Irish woman who attempted to take her own life following a lack of abortion services, brings attention to the dependence that women in Northern Ireland have on the services in England and the travel that was required. Healthcare is a devolved matter, but Northern Irish women still look to neighbouring regions for support.
Activists and organisations such as Amnesty UK have voiced their concern on the matter and encouraged petition signing on behalf of those in need. Pro-choice group Alliance for Choice Derry, have stated that they want the introduction of “remote consultations”, permission for women to take both of the abortion pills in the comfort and safety of their own home and for the Northern Ireland health minister to recognise that there is no “safe way to access abortion care in England during the crisis”.
Journalist Amanda Ferguson said that,
“the stories I am hearing already are disturbing. It is clear what needs to happen without further delay. Northern Ireland is currently part of the United Kingdom yet once again British, Irish and other citizens here are left behind to fight for the emergency provisions being afforded to those facing crisis pregnancy in Scotland, England and Wales. It is deeply frustrating that this matter has not been dealt with already”.
Doctors For Choice have said that this telemedicine method will ensure that pregnancies are carried out safely and humanely during the Covid-19, and that this system has been successfully implemented in other countries around the world.
The Executives decision will be a welcomed one by women and their partners here. It is a decision that has been long awaited. Women long to find out the support systems that their government are providing them. For most women, pregnancy can be a tough time in many ways, whether it is desired or not. However, for many girls and women, who may be in coerced relationships amidst this pandemic, this may be an even tougher situation. Mental health is obviously another huge aspect that may be compromised throughout pandemic pregnancies. It is important we do not leave the females of Northern Ireland alone, with no pillars of support.
Only time will tell the Covid-19 impact for abortions here in Northern Ireland.
If you or someone you know needs to seek assistance or support you can contact Samaritans on 116 123 or the NHS website.
Eimear McWilliams, 22, is studying for a Masters in Journalism and works freelance for Q Radio. Fan of Fleetwood Mac and vintage clothes.