The draconian abortion laws in Northern Ireland are a disgrace, and every Saturday I take to the streets to convince people we need to change them - Emma Gallen
In April 2016, a young woman living in Northern Ireland took abortion pills she ordered from the internet. Her housemates reported her to the police, and the Public Prosecution Service decided to bring her to trial.
The maximum sentence she faced was life imprisonment; she received a three-month suspended sentence. I felt I had to do something.
I already worked with Alliance for Choice, the local campaigning group on abortion rights, but I realised how important it was to do more. Since then, every Saturday I’ve volunteered to work on the stall they set up in Belfast city centre, providing information about what the abortion law is in Northern Ireland and asking people to get involved.
The Alliance for Choice slogan, printed across the stall table, is #trustwomen. It seems obvious – women know their own bodies and their circumstances. They are the ones we should be listening to when it comes to abortion. Yet every week a man, or group of men will respond with misogynistic comments at us as they walk past: “Why would I do that? ... With an iron? Sure.”
The only time they spare us such witty remarks is when there is a man covering the stall. On a good day I just find this irritating, but sometimes it feels like the manifestation of what we are up against: men who won’t ever have to deal with being pregnant, yet have no problem voicing their opinions on the subject – just because they can.
One of the most striking things I see on the stall every week is the amount of misinformation around abortion rights (or lack thereof) in Northern Ireland. The recent change in policy to allow Northern Irish women free abortions on the NHS is a huge step forward, but many people who I spoke to assumed that was already the case.
People approach us and say that they don’t want the law like in England; they just want what we have at the moment. But they don’t realise that Northern Ireland doesn’t even allow abortion in cases of rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormalities.
In fact, the only time women are granted access to abortions in Northern Ireland is if their life is in imminent danger. Last year, 16 legal abortions were performed in the country, while according to the BBC more than 700 women travelled from Northern Ireland to England to gain access to abortion. From the Republic of Ireland, it was more than 3,000.
The lack of accurate information among the general public isn’t surprising. In Northern Ireland, each school can determine its own approach to sex education. They’re not really required to explain pregnancy, let alone abortion.
If it is a sunny day, the anti-abortion group Precious Life are likely to be out with their stall, asking people to sign a petition to keep in place the draconian abortion laws in Northern Ireland. Their stall includes graphic images of foetuses, which drives people to us; parents frequently tell us they are disgusted by having to explain the pictures to their children.
One Saturday, a group of teenage girls came up to us crying because they had tried to question the message at the “pro-life” stand, who had threatened to call the police if they continued. They had been discussing their friend’s need for mental health support after being raped and having an abortion.
These teenagers understood that the trauma was the rape, travelling for an abortion and the lack of support, but the pro-life movement refused to listen.
I like to think that when I’m on the stall, any woman who has had an abortion and sees us knows that they have support: that their choices are valid and that it’s the Government and society that needs to progress.
Another woman who works with me on the stall told me she does so for anyone who has just discovered they are pregnant and doesn’t want to be, so that they know they do have choices and there is support out there.
While working on the stall means I’m faced with the stark reality of people’s prejudice and ignorance about the issue, I’m heartened every week by the increase in engagement. The majority of interactions are positive: people thanking us for being out, old ladies giving a thumbs up across the street with a big smile, and women lifting piles of the leaflets and postcards to bring to their family and work.
Many people may not want to legalise abortion altogether, but they still don’t believe women should be sent to jail.
The fight for abortion rights can sometimes feel overwhelming and never-ending, but things won’t change if we don't keep fighting. Unless there’s a protest on, the stall will continue to be out come rain or shine.