Northern Ireland has one of the most restrictive abortion laws across Europe, the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act. Following this law, and some subsequent case law, abortion in Northern Ireland is only legal in very limited circumstances; where the life or long term physical or mental health of the pregnant person is at risk. Outside of these exceptions, people who have an abortion, or help someone to, are committing a criminal offence with a maximum sentence of ‘life in penal servitude’. Alliance for Choice are campaigning for abortion to be decriminalised; in a nutshell this means that abortion would be regulated like any other healthcare matter rather than a potential criminal offence.
Only a very small number of legal abortions are carried out on the NHS in Northern Ireland each year. The number has dropped in recent years after publication of guidelines on how medical staff should interpret the law had a ‘chilling effect’ on doctors. This doesn’t mean that people in Northern Ireland aren’t having abortions, they just aren’t having free safe legal ones here. An estimated 1,000 women from Northern Ireland travel to England each year to have an abortion. As there is no NHS referral pathway, in spite of legal challenges, they have to pay privately for abortion healthcare and travel costs. The Abortion Support Network, a volunteer ran charity, helps with information and funding for those that travel for a safe and legal abortion, all be it not free. Unknown numbers of people are ordering safe but illegal pills from websites like Women on Web and Women help Women. While pills form these websites are the same pills as those prescribed in NI hospitals for miscarriage management, the same pills prescribed in the rest of the UK for medical abortion and the same tablets that are on the WHO essential medicines list, ordering them online and using them to cause an abortion is illegal here. The vast majority of people using Women on Web, 98%, reported that they would recommend it to others in a similar situation. People shouldn’t have to use safe but illegal pills, or pay travel and pay thousands of pounds, they should able to access free, safe and legal healthcare.
This is not an unenforced, abstract law, like the fact it is still technically illegal to go to the cinema on a Sunday and you shouldn’t take potatoes out of the country. The 1861 Act is very much in force with a number of people being before the courts in the past year. In April 2016 a woman was given a suspended prison sentence for using safe but illegal pills in her home to induce an abortion. A couple in a similar circumstance, after a drawn out legal process with a lot of delays, have been given cautions. Another woman is currently lodging a judicial review of the decision to prosecute her for helping her teenage daughter use safe but illegal abortion pills. As well as these cases there has been a police crackdown on abortion pills with packages seized by customs, raids at homes and workplaces, and people interviewed under caution, however no one has been charged to date.
The 1967 Abortion Act which made abortion more accessible across Great Britain was never extended to Northern Ireland. While a lot better than the situation here, the 1967 Act is far from perfect. Unlike other medical procedures, abortion requires two doctors to sign off on the decision, which can cause delay and prevents doctors from providing the best maternal healthcare. The law only acts as a defence to the 1861 act, any abortions performed outside of its provision are illegal and doctors and patients risk prosecution. Because of this risk of prosecution many doctors are deterred from this area of healthcare, making access difficult. The 1967 Act is outdated, at the time of drafting the idea of safe pills being ordered online and taken at home were beyond the imagination of the authors. The law prevents people from legally taking safe abortion pills at home, as well as outlawing new forms of once month contraception. While prosecutions are rare, they do happen and women are in jail in England because of the Act.
Recently a Private Members Bill which aims to decriminalise abortion in England and Wales was successfully progressed to the next stage in the House of Commons. The speech introducing this Bill sums up why decriminalisation is the best model. The 1967 Act does not provide equal coverage to people in GB. It restricts those in abusive relationships, people who are in a controlling family environment, those who are in rural areas, and those who are not capable of traveling. How is a woman whose partner monitors her every move supposed to get to a clinic to have her decision signed off by two doctors? Or a teenager with controlling parents? Or someone living in the Outer Hebrides? These people all deserve to exercise their choice and the 1967 Act restricts that. There are also the practical implications of requiring people to attend twice to take pills, which studies show can be safely used at home. Time off work, organising childcare, the cost of travel – all these things can be avoided while still offering safe, supported abortion healthcare.
Decriminalising abortion means that instead of being a criminal justice matter abortion is regulated like any other healthcare. Alliance for Choice campaign for the decriminalisation of abortion rather than the extension of outdated law. Organisations across Great Britain are also campaigning to replace the 1967 Act with legislation decriminalising abortion, with the planned bill for England and Wales intending to do just that.
Decriminalisation would make abortion more accessible, allow for timely healthcare, and decrease the stigma that those who have an abortion often experience. The negative experiences reported by people who have used Women on Web were not linked to their choice or the procedure, but the stigma of having to take illegal pills and the mental stress of the prospect of continuing with a pregnancy they did not want. Other countries have successfully implemented decriminalisation and have not seen an increase in abortions at any stage. Criminalising abortion only stops legal abortions, it does not stop abortion. Abortion care is healthcare, it should be regulated as such. Reproductive justice is imperative for bodily autonomy. We should ensure that abortions are free, safe, and legal, as well as accessible and local. Rather than a settle for legislation that restricts access, let’s lobby for a legal situation where no one goes to jail for making a decision about their own body, where they can access appropriate medical support, and where they can use up to date medication effectively at home if they choose to. Decriminalisation allows for best practice from a medical viewpoint and from a human rights standpoint. We need to decriminalise abortion now.