How Can Our Rage Over Alabama’s Abortion Ban Achieve Justice for Northern Ireland?
Molly Greeves on why Alabama’s abortion ban should jolt those in the UK into action to secure rights to the procedure in Northern Ireland.
On 15 May, many of us watched with horror as Alabama passed the strictest abortion ban in American history. And yet, on our own doorstep, women and trans people are being victimised by one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the Western world. In the wake of Alabama, how can we channel our rage into justice for Northern Ireland?
It’s unsurprising that Alabama has attracted so much media attention. 25 white, cisgender men voted to criminalise abortion in nearly every circumstance, including in cases of rape and incest. Mere weeks later, a pregnant Alabamian woman, Marshae Jones, was charged with manslaughter after being shot in the stomach. While the charges were dropped, the incident drove home the reality of this law: that foetuses are being valued over the women who carry them.
This isn’t a new idea in Northern Ireland. In the UK, many of us make the mistake of thinking that our abortion laws are more liberal than in many American states. This is true for England and Wales where, since the passing of the 1967 Abortion Act, it has been legal for a licensed medical professional to terminate a pregnancy if the procedure has been signed off by two other doctors.
Our current Prime Minister, a self-proclaimed “feminist”, has failed to act despite the United Nations ruling more than a year ago that the ban is a breach of human rights.
However, the Abortion Act does not extend to Northern Ireland. Its laws are still rooted in common law that was established prior to Irish independence in 1921. This means that 1.8 million Britons are being denied rights given to the rest of the British population such as same-sex marriage, gender recognition and access to safe abortion.
As it stands, there are two ways for Northern Irish citizens to terminate a pregnancy legally and safely. If a doctor can prove that they acted “for the purpose only of preserving the life of the mother”, they can have the procedure in Northern Ireland. Alternatively, they can travel to England, Scotland or Wales to have an abortion via the NHS. This is still restrictive as many people cannot afford the cost of flights and many people feel they have to lie to their employers to get time off of work because of the stigma surrounding abortion.
what the papers don’t say
Significantly, no exceptions are made for rape or incest. No exceptions are made if a foetus has a fatal abnormality (meaning it will not survive outside of the womb). If someone is suspected of having had an abortion, they can face up to a lifetime in prison.
A woman who obtained safe abortion pills for her 15-year-old daughter is facing up to five years in prison. The daughter was in an abusive relationship and was reported after telling her therapist that she took the pills. People who miscarry fear that they could be reported on suspicion of it being self-induced. Last year, more than 1,000 people spent their time and money travelling to England and Wales for a safe abortion.
It has been assumed that the situation in Northern Ireland will change, especially since the Republic of Ireland legalised abortion up to twelve weeks last September. But, this complacence is what will keep these restrictions in place. Both candidates to be the UK’s next Prime Minister, Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson, have stated that they will not attempt to change Northern Ireland’s abortion law.
In the UK, many of us make the mistake of thinking that our abortion laws are more liberal than in many American states.
Our current Prime Minister, a self-proclaimed “feminist”, has failed to act despite the United Nations ruling more than a year ago that the ban is a breach of human rights. Labour MP Stella Creasy is leading an attempt to extend this vital healthcare to Northern Ireland, but there are many obstacles. The Democratic Unionist Party are strongly opposed to changing the law and many MPs are not willing to stand against it.
If you are a British citizen, you may feel powerless to help those in Alabama. But, your passion is needed to help Northern Irish citizens obtain this right. For more information about how you can help change the situation, visit ‘Now for NI‘, Alliance for Choice and the Abortion Rights Campaign.
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