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Belfast protest for abortion rights
photography Jess Brien

Angry about Alabama’s abortion laws? Great – now look at Northern Ireland

Steamrollering part-timers whose activism fades after some sad retweets need not apply

“Dear people facing abortion pushback, we know how you feel…” begins an open letter from Alliance for Choice, a Northern Irish pro-choice group, addressing people in Alabama. It follows a new law passed in the US state that has made abortion illegal in all circumstances, including incest and rape, except if a woman’s life is at risk. With the ruling, any doctor providing abortion care faces up to 99 years in prison – the harshest in the US. It’s archaic, horrifying, and for Northern Irish people, painfully familiar.

The letter from Northern Irish campaigners offers practical advice on what to expect in a place with heavily restricted reproductive rights, and how best to protect body autonomy. Sound, straightforward guidance from people who live under some of the harshest abortion laws in the world, right at this moment.

Alabama’s draconian law – one of several in the Trump era – is currently unenforceable as it goes against Roe v. Wade, the ruling that brought legal abortion care to the states. It’s the aim of anti-abortion politicans that it goes all the way to the Supreme Court, in a bid to to overturn the monumental 1973 decision. Of course, this is concerning, and everything should be done to reject rolling back reproductive rights. The world has become laser-focused on Alabama – activists, cultural figureheads, politicians, actors, musicians, influencers from across the world are speaking out. Has the same fervour ever been whipped up for Northern Ireland and the plight of its people there? Simply, no.

People in Northern Ireland face up to life imprisonment for accessing abortion or assisting anyone in doing so, with several instances of women being criminalised in recent years. One Northern Irish woman was reported by her GP for procuring safe but illegal abortion pills for her then-15 year old daughter – the case is still ongoing. Another woman was reported by her housemates for accessing abortion, then given a suspended sentence of three months imprisonment. Local police forces have harassed pro-choice campaigners and raided multiple homes and workplaces. More than 900 people from Northern Ireland travelled to England for an abortion in 2017, a 25 per cent increase from the year before.

It seems that it’s much easier to express shock and disgust at faraway places rolling back vital human rights than barbarism on our doorstep in the UK; to hashtag for Alabama and make quickfire, surface-level references to Margaret Atwood’s dystopian Handmaid’s Tale. But NI’s troubles are immediate, and ever-evolving. Is pain and trauma more palatable when it’s viewed through a Valencia filter on a protest placard thousands of miles away? Or is it too embarrassing, or time-consuming, to confront issues close to home that have festered for decades? 

London streets were lined with women in pink pussy hats as part of a worldwide challenge to Trump’s anti-women agenda, while in my own experience, knowledge of Northern Ireland elsewhere in the UK remains totally dire. The Tories continually position themselves as feminist, and Theresa May boasts about pro-women policies. Even just a year on from the Republic of Ireland’s vote to abolish its own abortion laws, where is the energy for Northern Ireland’s obscene abuse of its citizens? Where are the people rejecting the UK government’s complicity in it? Activism in both the IRL and URL spaces is vital if we’re to force the British government’s hand. Northern Irish people dont’t need part-timers steamrollering in with faux, flat outrage though – we need direct action and worldwide solidarity now.

We’re over 850 days without a functioning government in Northern Ireland after its 2017 collapse – in over two years, no legislation has been passed by Stormont (NI’s parliament), because there’s no lawmakers sitting to do it. Northern Ireland is left behind in progressive law-making. The marginalised are the worst afflicted – poor people, migrants, the LGBTQ community, people with mental health issues, women, anyone who can get pregnant. From policy on coercive control and upskirting, to a plan to tackle suicide and cancer treatment funding, NI is being left in the dust to decay. Human rights should not be a devolved issue.

With no Northern Irish government, Westminster should act to impose fit-for-purpose abortion legislation, helping the UK citizens who pay the same taxes for the NHS as their other UK counterparts, who can access free, safe, legal, local abortion in England, Wales, and Scotland. The UN and human rights organisations have repeatedly called for action. However, the Tory government fears upsetting its already fraught relationship with the DUP, a leading NI party known for its ultra conservative ideals. A 2017 rule, instigated by Labour’s Stella Creasy, gave Northern Irish people access to free NHS abortion care if they travel to England. Nevertheless, NI people still must deal with the costs of travel, and the emotional and domestic stress of uprooting for a few days – for many, a secret, shame-shrouded task – to access healthcare. This is an urgent issue that needs support and action.

There are plenty of ways you can help – we’ve outlined some practical steps here, like writing to your MP and donating to groups like Abortion Support Network. But let’s be honest – Northern Ireland’s issues are dark, complicated, and steeped in British imperialism. It makes people uncomfortable, and it’s hard to sum up the years of oppression, violence, and restriction of bodies in our rapid news cycle or regram-regurgitating social media sphere. Truly acknowledging the plight of Northern Ireland’s people also means grappling with tough questions about sustained ignorance in the rest of the UK up until this point. As with Alabama, Northern Ireland’s pro-choice campaigners deserve to have the world listen and take their lead.