Stop calling abortion a 'sensitive' issue - for Northern Irish women it's simply toxic

Pro-choice campaigners demanding the British Government decriminalises abortion in Northern Ireland
Pro-choice campaigners demanding the British Government decriminalises abortion in Northern Ireland Credit: Wiktor Szymanowicz / Barcroft Images 

A Supreme Court ruling this week said that Northern Ireland’s abortion laws breach women’s human rights. A clear majority found that the abortion law here is incompatible with Article Eight; the right to a private and family life in cases of rape, incest, and fatal foetal abnormality. It was disappointing, then, that four of the seven judges found that the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission did not have standing to take the proceedings on behalf of women.

The question now is, if not the Commission, then who? Westminster?

The victorious referendum in Ireland last month, added real impetus to the long campaign to change the law in Northern Ireland, too. Now, the repeal of section 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act to decriminalise abortion must remain a priority for the Westminster Government, as outlined by United Nations CEDAW report on abortion law in Northern Ireland.

I would like to pay tribute to those women who have given their personal testimonies to the Supreme Court, and in a Westminster debate this week, on how the archaic abortion law in Northern Ireland has detrimentally impacted on their lives by forcing them to travel, making a difficult situation even more harrowing by lack of healthcare treatment at home.

It is disgraceful that traumatised women have to lay their souls bare so they can attempt to personalise their denial of basic human rights.

Ashleigh Topley, for example, who was 20 weeks into her pregnancy when she was told her daughter had a fatal foetal abnormality and wouldn't survive. She was refused a termination and forced to carry her until 35 weeks, before giving birth to her stillborn daughter.

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Denise Phelan was unable to access an abortion in England due to ill health and was forced to give birth to a foetus that had already been dead for five days in her womb. A teenager had to make the harrowing journey to England for an abortion after suffering the double trauma of incest and rape.  

Each woman who laid out her most private horror made it clear: when women talk about the abortions they could not have in Northern Ireland they tell the story of the physical and emotional devastation that comes with living in a body that you are prevented from making fundamental decisions about.

These women deserve a public State apology for the indignity and inhumanity shown to them. What these stories expose is the level of misogyny in this society which is palpable, and sits at odds with British and Irish societies east and south of us.

Fifty years post-Civil Rights, the ethno-sectarian landscape is improved, while the gender landscape remains fixed. The toxic masculinity found in most ‘normal societies’ is doubly layered in Northern Ireland; we live in an armed patriarchy. That’s what the peace process and subsequent sectarian carve-up has delivered.

Should we call it progress when women are no longer at the back of the bus, but are thrown under it? Women still lack access to equality, human rights, bodily autonomy and reproductive healthcare. An absence of organised violence has not provided rights for women.

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In 1968, you could access a backstreet abortion in Northern Ireland. In 2018, it is much the same; ordering abortion pills on the internet and risking life imprisonment via legislation that is 157 years old. We export another 900 or so women a year to England and beyond for terminations, because some politicians refuse to see the living breathing women in this debate.

Those who do seek abortion face condemnation via a hierarchy of ‘good’ abortions and ‘bad’ abortions. But in 2018, as in 1968, there are no good or bad abortions; there are only abortions.

Abortion has been continually framed as a ‘very sensitive issue’. I don’t agree. If you don’t want an abortion, don’t have one; but who are we as a society to condemn hundreds of women to travel? Who are we as a society to criminalise women for accessing abortion pills online?

Public opinion is clear on this issue, with around 70 per cent of the population calling for abortion law reform. We want to see women’s denial of their human rights overturned, so that they can access the reproductive healthcare treatment they so desperately need at home.

This is not where it ends. We have reached a tipping point. We have had enough of reproductive slavery and second-class citizenship. A new revolution is on its way, and this time, it’s a women’s revolution.