Abortion is considered acceptable in the majority of countries in the world in order to save a woman’s life. However, a 2015 analysis called The Pew Report concluded that in at least 25% of countries, this is the only reason an abortion may be carried out legally. Other reasons, such as foetal abnormalities, rape, mental health, or the socio-economic situation in that region are not considered. It is also commonly illegal for a woman to request an abortion just because they do not want to carry a child to term.
It is still somewhat surprising, that Northern Ireland, part of the UK, still has strict anti-abortion laws – so much so that the United Nations commissioned a confidential enquiry in 2016 to investigate why women are “exposed to horrific situations” by restricting their access to abortion under any circumstances.
The Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Violence against Women, or Cedaw, stated that the ban constitutes “systematic violations of rights through being compelled to travel outside Northern Ireland to procure legal abortion or to carry their pregnancy to term”. It further concluded that the ban was inhuman and degrading and constituted nothing better than torture and violence. Strong words from a respected organisation.
Can we presume that the continuance of the law in Northern Ireland (for some reason the law was never extended to this part of the UK back in 1967, when the Abortion Law came into effect), is at least partially due to religion, or are there other reasons? The law also remains stringent in many parts of Latin America and also in Europe, with the Vatican City and Malta still recognising abortion as a criminal offence. Women face prosecution for going ahead with abortions, or helping others to carry them out through ‘illegal’ procurement of operations or pills within Northern Ireland, which are readily available online.
Whilst abortions in Northern Ireland are carried out, they are only sanctioned under extreme rules and situations, somewhat of a tenuous link to who should and who should not be allowed. The ‘acceptable’ reasons are:
Risk of loss of life from physical illness,
Risk of loss of life from physical illness in emergency, and
Mental illness that potentially could result in suicide.
In each case, these operations have to be sanctioned by no less than three medical professionals – an obstetrican, and two psychiatrists – one of whom must be a recognised as an authority on mental care of a woman during and after pregnancy. In most cases, the patient’s GP must also be consulted. Furthermore, they can only be carried out at medical facilities on an approved list. This would appear tantamount to attempting to prevent abortions, as far as possible.
Travelling to the Mainland
The numbers of women and girls travelling to mainland UK for abortions continues to increase by the year. Other organisations are calling upon the UK to take responsibility and urgent action for the laws in Northern Ireland to be changed as soon as possible. Amnesty International are somewhat at the forefront of this campaign, along with the UN and Cedaw, who all claim within their manifestos that these laws are a complete violation of womens’ rights.
However, there is hope on the horizon. Women from Northern Ireland can now take advantage of the law passed in June 2017 by the UK Government. It has been made easier for women to travel to the mainland for abortion care, which will be carried out free of charge. It is a simple process and only requires the potential patient to live in Northern Ireland (with a BT postcode), and have an HCN (equivalent of a National Health Number).
Certain private clinics in mainland UK are also offering free services to bona fide Northern Ireland residents. Along with this, clinics such as Marie Stopes are refunding any patients from NI who have had the consultation and procedures charged since June 2017.