There is an appetite for change on abortion rights in Northern Ireland. Labour must offer its support to the women fighting to make that change happen, writes Charlotte Norton
The law that covers abortion in Northern Ireland is the 1861 Offences Against the Persons Act. Under that law, women who have, or attempt, an abortion can face life imprisonment. This includes cases where there is a fatal foetal abnormality, or the pregnancy was a result of rape or incest. Northern Ireland did not implement the Abortion Act 1967, and the United Kingdom government did not want to force the issue under direct rule in the 70s.
Over 1,000 women a year travel to England from Northern Ireland for an abortion, and until this year, they paid up to £2,000 for a private procedure. In effect, abortion is legal for those who have money. Choice exists for those who have the resources to pay for it.
It is therefore to be welcomed that the Labour party have included extending the 1967 Act to Northern Ireland in their manifesto. Stella Creasy made real change when she pushed through a law which allows women from Northern Ireland to access abortions on the NHS in England and Wales.
But this is not enough. We cannot sit back and feel smug. Even if travel is covered, these women often need accommodation and the costs of bringing a trusted friend. That is not to start on aftercare costs, both psychological and physical. While the law remains unchanged in Northern Ireland, women are afraid to approach doctors following complications, and many doctors feel unable to help, fearful of prosecution.
Women in Northern Ireland need access to safe, legal abortions in their own towns and cities. That is why a group of people are pushing the issue through the courts. In late October, during the week that the rest of the UK will celebrate the 50 year anniversary of the 1967 Abortion Act, the UK supreme court will listen to the final appeal on the legitimacy of Northern Ireland’s abortion law. Courts up until now have consistently pushed the issue back to the executive in Northern Ireland.
This is simply unacceptable. Human Rights are not a devolved issue, and it should not be for the Northern Irish assembly to decide whether to restrict a woman’s rights. This is particularly clear with an assembly that has outdated and often sexist attitudes towards women, it seems unlikely the change can come from within. Jim Allister, when questioned about amending the law for cases of rape, replied by suggesting that women would simply pretend they had been assaulted. Even if an individual MLA did wish to raise the issue, the two main parties cannot even agree on how to form an executive, let alone put anything to a vote.
Many argue that the law has not changed because the people of Northern Ireland do not want it to. This is not the case, however. There is an appetite for change, particularly with younger voters who are becoming increasingly politically ‘homeless’ in Northern Ireland. And it is not just the young – at least 60 per cent of the public in Northern Ireland support liberalization of the law on abortion. This goes up to 70 per cent in cases of rape or incest.Th
The Tories have shown their disdain for Northern Ireland by their frankly embarrassingly incompetent handling of the failure of the NI parties to form a devolved government. Their confidence deal with the Democratic Unionist party has destroyed their credibility, particularly when it comes to issues like abortion rights. Labour must step up and defend the rights of women in Northern Ireland to choose what they do with their bodies.
Labour is the party of the Good Friday agreement. The progress made by the Labour party started in opposition. Mo Mowlam did not develop relationships and connections overnight, but built these up starting years before Labour was in government. Creasy has already started to follow in her footsteps, and I encourage us all to follow her example.
In practical terms, the Labour party can support charities offering advice to women in Northern Ireland, or join in petitions to the government. It is also vital that Labour acknowledges that position of our sister party, the Social Democratic and Labour party – which explicitly opposes changes in the law – is not good enough. If we are to take our cooperation with SDLP seriously, then we should be meeting with their politicians to pressure them to reconsider this issue.
Many in Northern Ireland are disengaged, and radical politics can (and does) take grip across the small country. I call on all people reading this to read another article about Northern Ireland, start a conversation, openly protest the unfair abortion and gay rights laws that still apply in the 21st century. Follow the supreme court case on 24 October, and if the women of Northern Ireland are not granted their rights, join me in protest.
Charlotte Norton is editor of Anticipations. She tweets at @Charlottelvn90
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