In the recent melee following the UK general election and resulting focus on the morally conservative policies of the coalition partners the DUP, you could be forgiven for thinking that resistance within Northern Ireland to regressive social policies was non-existent. Indeed at times some of the commentary bore more than a faint resemblance to a 21st century version of colonialism and with the rest of the UK suddenly alerted to the dire situation in Northern Ireland; some commentary came with the assumption that we had been cowering behind the sofa all these years. Not so. In fact there is a long standing history of resisting the policies of the DUP and all the other major political parties who have been more than a tad reluctant to bring Northern Ireland’s abortion laws into the 21st century.
Source image: Gabe Doran
In this resistance Alliance for Choice stands loud and proud as advocating for legal reform. Alliance for Choice campaigns for:
“Free, safe and legal abortion access in Northern Ireland, an end to the criminalisation of women and an end to the harassment of women attending the Marie Stopes Clinic and Family Planning Association counselling service in Belfast. It also seeks to give a voice to the tens of thousands of women from Northern Ireland who had abortions in England and elsewhere, or at home, alone, with the threat of prosecution and without medical support. (Anywhere Alliance for Choice say 'women' we mean to include trans men, non binary people and anyone who can get pregnant).
Having followed closely the work of the Belfast branch of the organisation for the last decade I have been in a unique position to observe their achievements, how the organisation has grown and developed and their alliances with other organisations regionally, nationally and internationally.
So what exactly does Alliance for Choice do?
Policy and legal reform
Alliance for Choice has played an active role in legal challenges before the Northern Ireland courts in recent years. It provided key evidence to the Judicial Review led by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, documenting how the current situation with regards to access to abortion contravened human rights standards, and how women in lower socio-economic groups were disproportionately affected. It is currently working with legal specialists to draw up legislation that could be used a gold standard in any future reform of the law. It also led consultation sessions on draft guidelines for medical professionals and makes regular submissions to international bodies detailing how the current law fails to meet international standards.
On two occasions activists set out to directly challenge the law, first in March 2013, when 100 individuals signed a letter stating they had taken the abortion pill or procured it for someone else, and then again in June 2015 when over 200 individuals signed a similar letter. Both actions received significant media attention and resulted in public debate about the effectiveness of the current law. Whilst this did not result in immediate police action in March 2016 two activists were investigated on suspicion of procuring abortion medication. The charges were later dropped.
Engagement with political parties
The growing momentum for change in how abortion is debated and a recognition of the need for legal reform have been evident within politics in Northern Ireland in recent years. Whilst opposition to widespread reform continues in the dominant parties, Alliance for Choice has played a key role providing briefings to political parties and candidates who are pro-choice. This ensured abortion rights remained an election issue in the May 2016 and March 2017 Assembly elections. Political parties have also been lobbied to allow their MLAs a free vote in the event of proposed changes to abortion law coming before the next Assembly.
Engaging with the public
As part of the Trust Women campaign Alliance for Choice garnered further public support for reform, encouraging member of the public to make demands on their politicians, to #trustwomen with decisions about their own bodies and to see the availability of abortion as a public good. The hashtag #trustwomen became prominent in mainstream and social media commentary. Activists also have organised weekly stalls in Belfast to help raise awareness. Education programmes such as Challenges for Choices provided a safe space to learn about the history of abortion law and discuss how views on abortion are influenced by institutions of power. Alliance for Choice has also worked closely with providers of the abortion pill Women Help Women and Women on Web, to improve awareness of the medication. Activists have provided briefing papers to challenge myths and misinformation about abortion pill, as well as abortion and legal reform and co-authored academic publications, contributing to knowledge exchange around the world on the Northern Ireland situation.
Engaging with people of faith
A common myth is that people of faith are anti-abortion. Alliance for Choice has engaged in under-the-radar work to breakdown this myth and to provide opportunities for people of faith who are pro-choice to hold discussions in safe spaces. This has enabled the fostering of conversations, with people of faith, allowing them to feel more confident in challenging the media stereotype of people of faith as being anti-choice.
Partnering with trade union and student union movements
Activists have built on long-standing relationships with both the Trade Union and Student Union movements, hosting workshops, attending delegate conferences and providing briefings on access to abortion and the need for legal reform. In the last year alone this has included work with:
- Irish Congress of Trade Unions Women’s Committee
- Northern Ireland Committee of Irish Congress of Trade Unions
- UNITE Women’s committee
- Irish Congress of Trade Unions Women
- Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance (NIPSA)
- National Union of Students/Union of Students in Ireland
- Irish National Teacher’s Organisation
- Irish Congress of Trade Unions Youth Committee
- Coalition to Repeal the 8th Amendment
- Trade Union Coalition to Repeal the 8th Amendment
Partnering with other civic society groups/organisations
Key to Alliance for Choice’s approach is alliance building with organisations which also seek to improve access to abortion and are supportive of legal reform. Its relationship with FPANI (Family Planning Association) dates back over decades. FPANI has led the way in fighting for improved access to abortion in Northern Ireland, notably through its long campaign on the need for clear guidance for health professionals on how the current law should be interpreted. Along with Northern Ireland Women’s European Platform, FPANI and Alliance for Choice submitted detailed evidence to the UN committee on Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), documenting how the archaic law in Northern Ireland discriminates against women and contravenes international human rights standards. The organisations have called for a CEDAW led inquiry into the highlighted discrimination.
Other partner organisations include: Alliance for Choice Derry, Belfast Feminist Network, Abortion Support Network, BPAS, MSI, Medical Students For Choice, Amnesty International NI, Humanists Northern Ireland, the Royal College of Midwives, Abortion Rights Campaign, Repeal the 8th Coalition, London Irish Abortion Rights Campaign, Voice for Choice, Catholics for Choice, and Inroads International.
Inevitably when an abortion story hits the headlines, such as prosecutions for use of the abortion pill, Alliance for Choice are called in to provide information and / or interviews. The scope of this work reaches local, national and international outlets such as: NVTV, the Belfast Telegraph, The Newsletter, the BBC, the Huffington Post, the New Statesmen, the Morning Star, The Telegraph, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, and Time Magazine.
At times of arrests/ prosecutions or other abortion stories hitting the headlines, Alliance for Choice has organised / participated in marches and protests in solidarity with those affected. Activists have also been regular attendees at the Rally for Choice march held in Dublin in September each year, an event with links in with The Global Day of Action for Safe and Legal Access to Abortion.
A range of creative projects have sought to challenge abortion stigma, provide a voice to those who have had abortion, and raise awareness. This has included the X-ile photographic project, passport butterflies, when they put their hands out like scales and the WANDA FILM Festival.
Funding opportunities for abortion right activism are particularly difficult to identify. Grants have been provided by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust and the Open Society Foundation, as well as donations from Trade Unions and individual donors via a Local Giving page. Fundraising events have included a comedy night, Stand up for Choice and Karaoke for Choice. In addition, a range of ethical “Trust Women” merchandise has been developed for fundraising and awareness raising; available online and at regular events such as Market for Choice.
The above presents an overview of the work of Alliance for Choice Belfast in the last decade, it is by no means comprehensive. The scale of the work and the efforts of its volunteers, many of whom provide considerable time to their activism, is difficult to quantify. Impact too is hard to measure, what is evident is that media and public discourse has developed in recent years to address the complexity of issues that impact on those seeking abortion. Indeed it is important to say that the public in Northern Ireland are supportive of reform, as evidenced by recent survey data. Changes in political discourse have undoubtedly both privately and in public, been influenced by the work of Alliance for Choice. (I could write at length about leading prochoice politicians, but will leave that for another day). In sum the activists have worked tirelessly, at times in isolation, with little to no funding and have fought through this to provide an articulate, evidence based, wide ranging campaign to highlight the serious, multiple injustices faced by those in Northern Ireland seeking abortions. That they do so whilst also being activists in other social justice campaigns is a testament to their commitment and passion.
About the author:
Fiona Bloomer is a lecturer in Social Policy at Ulster University, her research centres on: abortion policy in Northern Ireland. She is a founding member of the Reproductive Health Law and Policy Advisory Group, and a member of RAARN, the Reproductive Activism and Abortion Rights Network, a global network of academics and activists. You can find her on twitter @DrBloomer