Today
Mon 18 October 2021

A primetime drama about abortion in Northern Ireland shows that there is more work to be done to protect a woman’s right to choose in the UK, Sian Norris argues

The BBC drama Three Families told the story of the fight to decriminalise abortion in Northern Ireland from the perspectives of three women, all based on real-life stories.

The first focused on a mother who faced criminal prosecution for purchasing abortion pills online for her 15-year-old daughter who was in an abusive relationship. The second followed a woman whose baby had a fatal foetal abnormality but was still forced to carry it to term. The final woman’s baby also had a fatal foetal abnormality. She died in the womb and the mother was induced.

There was a missed opportunity to tell the story of a woman in Northern Ireland who simply didn’t want to be pregnant. Abortion bans aren’t only wrong because they hurt women in extreme circumstances such as abuse and fatal foetal abnormality. Abortion bans violate the human rights of all women, no matter their reason for ending a pregnancy. 

The UK’s 1967 Abortion Act, which made terminations legal, was never extended to Northern Ireland. Women and girls who became pregnant in the country were forced to risk criminal prosecution by purchasing pills online or, if they were able, travel to England and Wales.

The situation finally changed after a 2019 vote determined that, unless the collapsed Stormont Assembly reformed by 21 October 2019, Westminster would impose liberalised laws on the country. In March 2020, a new legal framework for abortion in Northern Ireland was introduced. 

But the fight isn’t over. While abortion is now available on demand for women in Northern Ireland up to 12 weeks, and with no limit in cases of severe foetal defect or risk of death or serious injury to the mother, access to safe and legal terminations remains a challenge across the UK. 


A Lack of Services

Despite abortion being decriminalised for more than a year in Northern Ireland, its Government has failed to commission services offering safe, legal terminations. As a result, women are still having to travel across the Irish Sea to access healthcare they are legally entitled to. 

In January, a legal challenge was launched by the Northern Irish Human Rights Commission against the UK Government, stating that the failure to commission services was “unlawfully denying the rights of women in the country”.

Westminster has now voted in favour of giving the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland the power to compel abortion services in the country. The move was opposed by Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) MPs and by anti-abortion Conservative MPs Ben Bradley, Stephen Crabb, Steve Baker, Fiona Bruce and 74 others.

The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) has said that Westminster must “use these powers as a matter of urgency” to ensure that women and girls have access to their human right to healthcare. 

Issues around access are not confined to Northern Ireland. Despite abortion being legal in some circumstances for more than 50 years in the rest of the UK, some women are still struggling to get the healthcare they need – particularly later on in pregnancy. Research published in 2018 by BPAS revealed that women who required a surgical abortion later on in pregnancy were being denied care because there were no local services available or they were simply unable to secure an appointment before the 24-week time limit. 

What’s more, the battle for abortion in Northern Ireland is not solely over access. Anti-abortion campaigners and MPs are hoping to weaken the law by bringing in new restrictions – including a ban on abortions in cases of foetal defect. Back in March, the DUP’s Paul Givan’s Severe Foetal Impairment Abortion Bill passed its second stage by 48 votes to 12. The law is now under consideration by the Stormont Health Committee. The Northern Irish Human Rights Commission has warned that it does not comply with the UK’s human rights obligations. 


The Fight to Decriminalise

The 1967 Abortion Act states that, to access a safe and legal termination, a woman needs two doctors to confirm that continuing the pregnancy will harm her physical or mental health. The abortion must also be performed on registered premises, although this has been relaxed during the Coronavirus pandemic, with women given access to telemedicine to relieve the pressure on the NHS. 

Technically, abortion is still governed by the 1861 Offences Against the Persons Act. This means that a woman accessing a termination outside of the conditions allowed in the 1967 Act would be committing a criminal offence. For this reason, pro-abortion campaigners in recent years have focused their efforts on decriminalisation.

In 2018, Labour MP Diana Johnson introduced a bill for full decriminalisation up to 24 weeks. She also attempted to bring an amendment to the Domestic Abuse Bill that would liberalise abortion laws, although it was not selected by the Speaker. 

Campaigners are also hopeful that the UK Government’s recent consultation on allowing telemedicine for abortions in early pregnancy will make access to terminations easier. 

The anti-abortion movement responded to this with petitions and campaigns that included an attempt to take the Government to court. It also seeks to undermine the legal basis for abortion as outlined in the 1967 Act – the stipulation that, in order to have an abortion, two doctors must agree that continuing the pregnancy will impact a woman’s mental or physical health.

The anti-abortion movement does this by spreading disinformation linking abortion with a range of health issues, including cancer, infertility, increased risk of ectopic pregnancy and ‘post-abortion syndrome’ – a debunked mental health condition. Organisations such as Christian Concern claim that “most abortions in the UK are, in fact, illegal”.

However, their attempts to undermine the legality of abortions on health grounds have been proven over and over again to be baseless. The NHS confirms that a woman who has an abortion “is no more likely to experience mental health problems” than if she continues with her pregnancy. It also explains that abortion “does not increase the risk of breast cancer” and “having an abortion will not affect your chances of becoming pregnant and having normal pregnancies in the future”.


Buffer Zones

The BBC’s Three Families included (sanitised) scenes of anti-abortion protestors outside Belfast’s solo MSI Reproductive Choices clinic – raising a second, much-contested legal issues: buffer zones. 

These are protected spaces around clinics intended to ensure women accessing healthcare are not harassed or upset by anti-abortion campaigners.

A 2018 attempt to bring in ‘buffer zones’ across the country was judged “disproportionate” by then Home Secretary Sajid Javid. In a speech in July 2020, Conservative MP Fiona Bruce claimed that buffer zones would be a “drastic overreaction” that could damage “the more widely held freedom of speech in this country”.

“Freedom of assembly, freedom of expression, freedom of religion and the right to peaceably protest and the right to receive information [are] fundamental liberties underpinning our democracy and many hard won,” she added.

Bruce’s and Javid’s concern for the freedom of expression of anti-abortion protestors did not prevent them from recently voting in favour of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which seeks to restrict protest – although Bruce has expressed concerns over the bill’s powers.

Supporting the campaign against buffer zones is ADF International, the US parent of which, Alliance Defending Freedom, won a Supreme Court case against the zones in Massachusetts. In 2019, Fiona Bruce spoke at ADF International’s youth conference. 

The row over buffer zones, the barriers to access and the fight for decriminalisation all mean that there is still some distance to go before the UK truly respects women’s human right to bodily integrity. 

‘Three Families’ is available to watch now on BBC iPlayer

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