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Moment that mattered: A Northern Irish woman is sentenced for self-inducing an abortion

Pro-life activists campaign against the Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast at its opening in October 2012

Pro-life activists campaign against the Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast at its opening in October 2012

In the first case of its kind for 40 years, an unnamed Northern Irish woman was sentenced on 4th April for using abortion pills, after having been reported to police by her housemates. She was given a three-month sentence suspended for one year. “I was flabbergasted by the ruling,” says Emma Campbell. “I couldn’t believe the public prosecution service pursued the case in the first place and I felt incredibly bad for the woman, who was only 19 at the time she took the pills.”

The current availability of mifepristone and misoprostol, which can trigger a miscarriage during the early stages of a pregnancy, has created a dilemma for the Northern Irish authorities. For years they effectively allowed the abortion problem to be exported to the UK, but now the law is being broken locally all the time. “I believe this sentencing was political, to make an example of this woman and frighten others into not taking pills,” says Campbell.

Alliance for Choice, the organisation Campbell chairs, was disappointed by the reaction to the ruling. “Theresa Villiers [then-Northern Ireland secretary] said very little about it,” she says. “We were also disappointed by the police and media reporting of the case. The police said it was a ‘baby boy’ when the foetus was less than ten weeks old – too soon to make a definite medical decision on the gender – and the media headlines of ‘babies in the bin’ were unhelpful and alarmist.”

The abortion laws in Northern Ireland are among the world’s strictest. Abortions are only legal if a woman’s life is endangered by the pregnancy or if she has a history of severe mental illness. In a typical year, fewer than 35 legal abortions take place. There is the option of travel to England, but this is expensive as Northern Irish women are not legally entitled to free abortions on the NHS and not everybody is able to travel. “We’ve always said that this woman was being penalised for being poor,” says Campbell. “Abortion pills are a safe alternative to travelling to England. They can be purchased online and you get a free consultation to ensure you’re at the correct gestation and that you don’t have any conditions that may be affected by the medication.”

The UK had the power to change the abortion law until 2010, when policy was devolved to the Northern Ireland assembly. Alliance for Choice used to campaign for the extension of the 1967 Abortion Act – which legalised abortion in England, Scotland and Wales – to Northern Ireland, but since some republicans regard the act as British legislation it has shifted its focus to ending the criminalisation of women.

Getting the abortion laws reformed is a big challenge, partly because the pro-life movement has ties to the political establishment in Northern Ireland. “They have the ear of the DUP and SDLP parties,” says Campbell. “Sinn Féin wants to allow abortion in limited circumstances, but they’ve been very softly-softly on this policy in Northern Ireland because they don’t want to lose traditional Catholic votes. The pro-life lobby likes to promote a puritanical, judgemental view of young women, who get pregnant fecklessly and would have abortions in their lunch break if they could. They get training from their counterparts in Washington DC, and there’s political power and money behind them.”

At Marie Stopes in Belfast, the only abortion clinic in Northern Ireland, women are often confronted by protesters, so Campbell and her colleagues offer to escort them to and from the building. “The protesters say things like ‘you’re the mother of a dead baby’ and hold plastic foetuses in women’s faces,” says Campbell. “One young woman hadn’t asked us to escort her, but protesters blocked the doorway to the clinic and harassed her, so she ran off and hid at Tesco. We had to go there to help her. It’s a form of public shaming.”

“Some women have been driven to drastic measures by the restrictive laws, drinking bleach or taking whole packets of birth control pills”

Dawn Purvis, the former director of Marie Stopes, used to have pro-life activists following her down the street after work. Campbell says that she has to screen calls and block pro-life campaigners on social media, and that they’ve tailed her around Belfast even when she’s not escorting anybody. “I film all our interactions because as soon as we make any physical contact with them they try to report me,” she says. “On so many occasions I’ve sat in a police station when I haven’t done a thing. It’s wearing, but on the other hand every time pro-life groups appear on TV we get more members
and donations.”

In the aftermath of the ruling, Alliance for Choice was involved in two demonstrations that were picked up by the media. In May, three women – the youngest aged 68 – handed themselves in at a Derry police station saying they had procured and taken abortion pills, and should be charged. This was a follow-up to a 2015 campaign in which 200 people signed an open letter saying they’d procured pills and were willing to be arrested. On 21st June, the group used a drone to transport pills from the Republic of Ireland to Northern Ireland to draw attention to the lengths people will go to in order to have safe abortions. “Yes, they were both stunts,” says Campbell, “but we need to create greater awareness of abortion laws in Ireland. More than 800 people travel from Northern Ireland to England each year to get abortions, and some women have been driven to drastic measures by the restrictive laws, drinking bleach, or taking whole packets of birth control pills at once.”

In November 2015, a judicial review ruled that Northern Ireland’s abortion laws breach the human rights of women and must be reformed. The Northern Ireland department of justice and the attorney general are appealing against the ruling.

Campbell is frustrated by the status quo.
“One in three women in the UK will have an abortion in their lifetime, so around a third of women in Northern Ireland are not being treated as UK citizens,” she says. “They’re effectively exiled when it comes to the right to healthcare. People are angry that they live somewhere that treats them so badly – and for some people this sentence feels like the final straw. It’s time to stop criminalising women for accessing healthcare.

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