Three women from Northern Ireland are in Washington to receive a prestigious award for their pro-choice activism. Foreign Policy magazine has named Derry women Diana King, Colette Devlin and Kitty O’Kane as joint winners of one of their Global Thinkers Awards for 2016.
Named in the “ideas into action” Activist category, the three are receiving the award for “committing a righteous crime” – that of helping women in Northern Ireland to access abortion pills to obtain illegal, but very safe, abortions. In May of this year, the three handed themselves in to police in Derry and provided evidence that they had allowed their addresses to be used for the delivery of abortion pills for women in the city who were fearful of using their own addresses; they were questioned under caution and a file has been sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions. The women have not heard yet whether they are to be prosecuted.
According to Foreign Policy’s CEO and editor, David Rothkopf, "It is easy to suggest that Trump or Brexit or the rise of the right with the help of Vladimir Putin were the big stories of the year. But they are all about reaction - reaction to technological change, demographic change, and global dislocations. The political winners of the year were offering a chance to cling for a little longer to a fading past, but in our view on the medium- to long-term, we can't help but conclude that they are phenomena of the moment. When we consider as we do each year the work of the world's leading thinkers, we find that the vast majority of them--in science, technology, business, culture and government--are actually moving us forward and helping to solve the problems of the past. That's encouraging...and that's what we are acknowledging with this issue.”
Certainly, that’s how these three Derry women see the role of the 9 week abortion pills – as “solving problems”. Colette Devlin points out that their action in handing themselves into the police and “confessing” to their actions in helping women access the pills was “very much a local one, because isolated women are being prosecuted in the North of Ireland because they can’t afford to travel for a legal abortion in England and we wanted to force a more political trial that questions the right of the Northern Ireland state to continue to criminalise women in this way”.
But their action has a very clear global context. As Kitty O’Kane explained: “according to the World Health Organisation, 830 women across the world die every day from pregnancy and child-birth related conditions, including unsafe abortion. With unsafe abortion a leading cause of maternal deaths, the availability of these pills has halved the number of those deaths from ten years ago”.
Diana King explains how the pills have saved lives. “These 9-week abortion pills bring on an early miscarriage and the risks associated with them are no greater than the risks attached to a spontaneous early miscarriage. They are effective and safe. With not-for-profit telemedicine groups on the internet, such as WomenHelp.org and Women on Web, providing individual medical consultations, women are able to take control of their reproductive health themselves.
The three women point to the fact that more than 200 women in Northern Ireland have signed an open letter to the authorities admitting that they have broken an 1861 law by taking abortion pills or by helping other women to procure them. Yet, none of those activists who very publicly admitted to this have been prosecuted, while prosecutions of individual, isolated women continue. It was these prosecutions of young women “with their whole lives before them” that led the three to decide to take the bold step of handing themselves to the police and admitting their “crime”.
“The ridiculous thing is that we in Northern Ireland are part of the ‘United Kingdom’”, says Diana King, “and the UK government has been told repeatedly by several UN treaty bodies that it cannot blame devolved government for the breach of women and girls’ rights in Northern Ireland. Public opinion here has moved to support abortion law reform. But Northern Ireland's leaders refuse to acknowledge that.
“The UK government endorses the Sustainable Development Goals which include a target of ‘universal access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights’. So, we have the bizarre situation where the UK government supports rights for women in developing countries that are denied to women within its own borders i.e. women and girls in Northern Ireland”.
The three women hope that their Foreign Policy award will embarrass the UK government in London and lead it to recognise that the failure of the Assembly to act to protect the rights of women and girls in Northern Ireland means that “Westminster must intervene”.
This is the link to the general site: https://gt.foreignpolicy.com/2016/