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Northern Ireland’s cruel abortion laws are punishing women

The Supreme Court rules that women from NI are not entitled to NHS-funded abortion services, a horrific blow to reproductive rights that shows the hypocritical, callous political system for what it is

Today, the Supreme Court delivered its ruling on a landmark case, seeking NHS-funded abortions for women who travel from Northern Ireland to England. By a narrow margin of 3-2, the judges decided to reject the appeal by a mother and daughter (known as A and B in the courts). This means that women from Northern Ireland will not be entitled to free abortion access, out of “respect” for the laws set by the NI assembly, which are some of the world’s strictest rules surrounding reproductive rights.

Effectively, we’ve been priced out of our own body autonomy. According to Alliance for Choice, it can cost up to £2,000 to access a safe and legal abortion in England. Despite being UK taxpayers, people seeking abortions from NI still have to go and pay out of pocket to exercise their right to choose. It’s appalling, and a huge matter of class and economics.

It’s paramount that people in the rest of the UK listen to the ongoing plight of people there. As the Tories consult with the ultra-conservative, Christian DUP to prop up their government, the spotlight should be focused on the human rights breaches that rage across the state. Parties like the Democratic Unionist Party actively encourage forced pregnancy, and support criminalising those who deviate. In November last year, the Belfast High Court found the abortion laws in violation of human rights, but the NI assembly, populated by DUP politicians, voted to keep the ban in place. It’s a hypocritical, dangerous union, that could have reprocussions for women across the UK. 

New statistics released by the Department of Health this week showed that 724 women travelled from Northern Ireland. This equates to two women travelling a day. It’s a number that’s probably much smaller than the real thing, given that many will provide false addresses to protect themselves. It also doesn’t cover the amount of women who will be performing DIY abortions with safe but illegal pills. 

A bit of background into the horrors that led to a battle in the UK’s highest courts, informed by Amnesty International: in 2012, a 15-year-old women from Northern Ireland (known as A) sought out an abortion. She visited a clinic in England with her mother (known as B) to access the private services. The total cost, including travel, was £900. She reasonably believed that abortion services in NI were unavailable, and neither was England’s NHS services as an NI resident. 

“The government continues to use the uterus as a political pawn, women no more than choiceless vessels”

The Abortion Act 1967, which applies to England, Scotland and Wales, does not extend to NI. It’s within the power of the Secretary of State to see through more liberal abortion policy, but they haven’t pushed this. A, fronting her own case, appealed that the government’s refusal to extend liberal policy on reproductive rights was unlawful. As abortion and healthcare provider Bpas asserts, Jeremy Hunt’s refusal to grant this care is astutely political, rather than financial. The government continues to use the uterus as a political pawn.

NHS-funded abortion services should absolutely be a legal and human right for pregnant people in NI, but the politicizing of bodies continues. This case was rejected out of “respect” for the NI government, but where is the respect for women? Where is the recognition of abortion access as important healthcare, denied to no one residing in Liverpool, or Newcastle, Devon or London?

And it’s the poorest women who suffer under these medieval laws: people who can’t afford the trip across the water, people who have to choose between their weekly food shop and booking a plane ticket, putting their jobs at risk when they need to take days off, time running out as the price of treatments go up the longer you wait. The law asks them to impoverish themselves, put their daily lives at risk. Without the help of Abortion Support Network, who help to fund travel, treatment and accommodation, many more would be backed into a terrifying corner. As any country’s statistics with restrictive abortion laws show, abortions will always happen. What we can do is make sure they’re free, safe and legal.

The abortion policy as it stands also forces women to break the law, who procure WHO-approved, but illegal pills to end pregnancies. This is where life-saving services such as Women on Web and Women on Waves come into play, but we absolutely see women punished. Last year, a 21-year-old received a sentence for buying such pills and self-inducing, and there are other pending cases. 

The Supreme Court today ruled that such “discrimination” was “justified” – the emotional trauma they force onto people who just don’t want to be pregnant, the financial strain pushed upon them, to betray two women from NI a day who seek body autonomy.

There’s hope and strength to be pulled from Lord Kerr and Lady Hale, who dissented against this decision. But in the wake of the ruling, we witness Westminster continue to cast a blind eye over major human rights breaches in the UK. It’s deliberate, dangerous ignorance. We must support the campaign by women in Northern Ireland for reproductive rights that’s been, for so long, ignored by the rest of the UK, and amplify those important voices. A and B have vowed to fight this decision. Follow along with the ongoing cases that see women in court for accessing a faction of healthcare, and support integral organisations fighting to make it free, safe and legal, like Abortion Support Network, Alliance for Choice, Bpas, Amnesty International and London Irish Abortion Rights Campaign.