The Bid to Criminalize Northern Ireland’s Women

The Bid to Criminalize Northern Ireland’s Women

Under the backdrop of International Women’s Day, parties on opposite sides of the sectarian divide in Northern Ireland have come together in order to attach an abortion amendment to Stormont’s Criminal Justice Bill. Paul Givan of the DUP and Alban Maginness of the SDLP have tabled an amendment that would prevent private clinics from performing abortions, and restrict the practice to the NHS.

It seems typical of political parties here to unite on a non-existent threat. The Marie Stopes Clinic, of which this amendment is undoubtedly the target, has always maintained an agreement to carryout medical procedures only within the legal framework that exists in Northern Ireland. Terminations are provided in Northern Ireland up to nine weeks gestation and only when the life of the pregnant women is at risk. Yet the motivation for this amendment has been a response to what Givan calls “the challenge that was presented when the Marie Stopes clinic opened in Northern Ireland and that revealed a loophole that private clinics are wholly unregulated.” This amendment will effectively criminalize the Marie Stopes Clinic, and with it, the women who need access to its legal services.

A Marie Stopes abortion clinic has opened in Belfast. Photograph: Paul Faith/PA

This is another example of Northern Irish politicians falling back on personal moral beliefs instead of listening to their constituents when deciding on real government issues. For instance, the reluctance (or what some say, downright refusal) of Health Minister Edwin Poots to issue guidelines on abortion procedures in Northern Ireland. The Family Planning Association (FPA) in Northern Ireland has been asking the Health Department for 11 years to issue instructions for doctors and other medical professionals in regards to abortion. Poots released a draft of the guidelines on March 8th, the tone of which reinforces abortion as an exception event in Northern Ireland, to be carried out in very restricted circumstances. It will be considered by ministers and consulted upon for another 16 weeks.

This need for guidelines has been highlighted recently with the tragic case of Savita Halappanavar in the Republic of Ireland. To prevent a similar incident, the FPA has repeated their request to the Health Department. The UK allows abortions up to 24-weeks with certain conditions under the 1967 Abortion Act of Great Britain – this has never been extended to Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland is now facing a situation where guidelines are becoming unnecessary, as abortion is becoming increasingly criminalized.

“The current situation is unacceptable,” says acting CEO and director of Northern Ireland FPA Dr Audrey Simpson. “Neither health professionals or women know when an abortion is permissible and this has devastating effects on women’s health and well-being and the standard of care professionals are able to give them.”

Alliance MLA, Anna Lo, has been the first and currently only confirmed MLA to sign a petition of concern to block the proposed amendment. The MLA has said: “The NHS contracts many services to private health care firms – I find the hypocrisy staggering.” There are rumors that other MLAs have signed a petition of concern, a document which triggers a motion that can only pass if a majority of nationalists and unionists back it. It was drawn up as a means to ensure neither unionist nor nationalist domination of the assembly. If a PoC is signed by 30 MLAs, the amendment will not pass.

On her website, Lo has said “This is clearly part of Mr Givan and Mr Maginness’ anti-choice agenda. It is insulting to women to not allow them autonomy over their own bodies and it implies that the decision to have an abortion is a simple one.”

Tracey McNeill UK and Europe director of Marie Stopes International has stated that the clinic would not be releasing statistics on their patients.  “We will not betray the men and women who come to us,” she said. “If the department of health had a way to guarantee the complete protection of patient’s identity then we would enter into dialogue.”  Considering the stigma attached to abortion in Northern Ireland, privacy is an important factor, not to mention a human right, for those who approach the Marie Stopes Clinic.

The impact on Northern Ireland’s women will be significant. An interesting under reported detail in this debate, is just how many women have to travel to England or Wales for abortions. In 2011, 6,151 women came to England … 4,149, from Ireland, followed closely by Northern Ireland. In these circumstances, the responsibility of accessing medical services is placed on the woman

This is a peculiar cruelty lashed on Ireland and Northern Ireland’s women– where they are not allowed to undergo this procedure at home, but are forced into a situation in which they must travel hundreds of miles and spend hundreds of pounds to do it in England and Wales. Women traveling tend to have later abortions because of the time it takes to raise the funds necessary and negotiate travel plans. The financial cost of this trip is overwhelming for many. London-based Abortion Support Network, a volunteer-run charity that helps women who travel to England to access a safe and legal abortion, show that women seeking their help have increased year after year, that this is something that is not going away.

Women in Northern Ireland are increasingly finding themselves as second and third class citizens. Not only is their health being put at risk following initiatives by male politicians, but they are also in a situation where women in the rest of the UK have more reproductive rights.

Stormont will be debating this amendment on Tuesday 12th March. In a bid to further the debate, women from across Northern Ireland have risked imprisonment by signing a letter openly confirming that they “have either taken the abortion pill or helped women to procure the abortion pill in order to cause an abortion here in Northern Ireland.”

Manifesto 343

In a move reminiscent of the 1971 Manifesto of the 343, in which Simone de Beauvoir, among others, signed a public admission of having had an abortion in an attempt to trigger reform in France, over 100 women in Northern Ireland have signed a similar letter.

This open letter, like the manifesto, is a public demand for access to birth control and abortion. While written 42 years apart, the points raised in the Manifesto are unfortunately valid in today’s Northern Ireland.

One million women get an abortion in France every year. They’re doing it in dangerous conditions because they’re condemned to clandestineness, although medically controlled abortion is a simple thing. Everyone keeps silent about those million women. I declare I am one of them. I had an abortion. As well as demanding free access to contraceptive means, we are demanding free abortion.—Manifesto of the 343, Le Nouvel Observateur, #334, April 5, 1971

The letter states that this letter, published in the Observer newspaper, is in response to the amendment, which

“We believe is aimed at closing down the debate on abortion here, as much as it is about closing down Marie Stopes. We want to emphasise that medical abortions happen in Northern Ireland on a daily basis but without any medical support or supervision. We were delighted when Marie Stopes came to Belfast as it meant that women who are unwell can access a doctor to supervise what we have done or helped others to do without medical help. And therefore have a right to a legal abortion here.”

Featured image caption: Northern Ireland, administrative divisions. (Wikimedia)

I am Founder & Director at Hollaback! Belfast. I have a Master’s Degree in History and Gender & Women’s Studies from the University of Wyoming. My academic work focuses on the role of women in post-conflict societies, with a particular focus on grass roots activism. I write for a number of feminist leaning blogs, am active in local feminist groups in Northern Ireland and an active speaker on Women & LGBTQ rights.