The 1967 Abortion Act does not apply to Northern Ireland; if a woman finds herself pregnant her choice is determined by how much money she can access. If she is well-off, and can easily raise between £700 and £1000, she will have a private abortion in England or Scotland. If she is part of the more than 50 per cent of Northern Ireland’s society that is on, or below, the poverty line, then in all likelihood she will be forced to continue the pregnancy. Or she may try to cause an abortion herself. Eleven per cent of Northern Ireland’s GPs say they have seen the results of amateur abortions.
Last month it was reported that women in Northern Ireland, and over 70 other countries with abortion restrictions, have been using the internet to get abortion pills, particularly via a website called Women on Web. A British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology review of 400 customers found that nearly 11% had needed a surgical procedure after taking the medication, either because the drugs had not completed the abortion or due to excessive bleeding.
Precious Life (pro-lifers) plan to lobby the Northern Irish assembly to tackle this issue, presumably with the intention of trying to get the site shut down. With so many women needing medical treatment after taking the abortion pill, of course something needs to be done. But when the “pro-lifers” are bleating on about this, it is not the woman they’re thinking about. If they were really thinking about the women then they would be calling for reproductive freedom!
The only way to stop women having to use these internet drugs, that may not be suitable for them, is to extend abortion rights to Northern Ireland. Fortunately Diane Abbott will be sponsoring an amendment to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill to try to do this. But as I will explain, she will be met with a lot of opposition.
Women in Northern Ireland face a stark choice. Martin Lupton, chairman of the ethics committee of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: “They are putting themselves at risk in taking these tablets. Having said that, access to illegal termination services is extremely hazardous in any case and it may well be that this is a safer form of termination than illegal surgical methods, which may be the only alternative they have.”
The right to choose is an issue for all women, central to the struggle for women’s equality and liberation, but as Northern Ireland shows, it affects working-class women with particular sharpness. When abortion is illegal, most rich women are still able to access safe abortion provision, it is overwhelmingly working-class and poor women who suffer, damage their bodies, or die as a result of unsafe backstreet abortions. These pills should not remain the only alternative for women in Northern Ireland, or any woman.
Politicians on all sides would have us believe that there is no support in Northern Ireland for abortion rights to be extended — including, shamefully, Labour politicians. Of course the religious fundamentalists are against abortion, but as Goretti Horgan from Pro-choice Northern Ireland says, “the attitudes of individuals towards abortion are significantly more sympathetic and, more importantly, liberal than any pro-lifer would ever admit. But they know it. And they're terrified of it. The fact is, if (when?) the liberalisation of abortion law in Northern Ireland becomes a reality, it certainly won't be by any back door.”
Significantly all the larger trade unions: Unison, Unite and NIPSA (The Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance) have policies that support extension of the Act. While some politicians will mutter that these are British unions "imposing" their views on Northern Ireland this is clearly nonsense.
The policies are passed at Irish or Northern Ireland regional conferences and NIPSA — the largest union in the region — organises only in Northern Ireland. The religious right, both Protestant and Catholic, previously tried to mobilise against civil partnerships for gay and lesbian couples and not only didn’t succeed but failed to maintain a credible campaign of protest. Over the coming months all the Northern Irish Parties, backed up by New Labour, will tout the same lie that Northern Ireland doesn’t want abortion rights. We need to make this difficult for the same to say.
Why aren’t we seeing any support from mainstream New Labour to extend abortion rights to Northern Ireland?
It is not because as New Labour claims “no one in Northern Ireland supports abortion” and they will not “impose it”; tell that to the 40 women a week who travel to have abortions or to the women who cannot do this and are forced to carry their pregnancy through to full term. No; a guarantee that abortion rights will not be extended to Northern Ireland is rumoured to be the deal struck with the Democratic Unionist Party in order push through “42 days detention” legislation.
Gordon Brown presented the wombs of Northern Irish women as his bartering chip to push through his anti-democratic laws. That nine reactionary fuck-wits can get together with Brown to curtail our civil liberties and decide, like a boy’s club that women in Northern Ireland will continue to be denied fundamental rights, exposes everything that is rotten in our so called democracy.
There was much speculation in the press at the time that the deal could have been abortion rights, but of course no credible source would come forward to back this up. Officially the DUP and Brown insisted there was "no deal" tied to the critical vote but the party's Lagan Valley MP Jeffrey Donaldson (and chair of the all-party pro-life group!) has acknowledge that there were "a whole range of issues" that his party would press the government on over the next few months.
So the Government will do all it can to stop Abbott’s amendment passing. Good for her for standing up to pressure by Labour whips that such a stand could “cause the collapse of the peace process” etc etc.
Such pressure is self-serving nonsense. All the major parties on both sides of the communal line (including the supposedly left-wing Sinn Fein) oppose abortion rights for Northern Irish women, it’s difficult to see how the extension of the Act to Northern Ireland would increase communal tension. And what kind of peace process is it that relies on women’s rights being strangled in this way? What would we say to the idea that workers in Northern Ireland should have fewer rights than workers in mainland Britain in order to prop up the Good Friday Agreement?
The anti-choicers often talk about reducing the time limit; really they are just attacking us where they think they can start to win. Their end goal is to chip and chip away at our rights until we have none left and this is what we are already seeing in Northern Ireland. The politicians, no doubt strengthened from their deal with Brown have set their sights on ending the tiny number of legal abortions (around 80) that are carried out every year.
This month guidelines on termination of pregnancy in Northern Ireland were issued by the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. These guidelines are clearly aimed at scaring doctors in the North from carrying out any abortions except in the most extreme circumstances to save a woman's life. In fact Northern Irish pro-choicers think that the guidelines will allow those doctors who take a particularly hard-line Roman Catholic position on abortion not to intervene to save a woman’s life. Abortion will remain illegal for women pregnant as a result of rape, and now, women who are carrying a foetus that cannot live outside of the womb, may well have to carry the foetus to full term. And still the anti-abortionists howl for more.
The parties have been told that abortion will be devolved along with criminal justice in the next few months. After that, there will be very little chance of Northern Irish women getting the right to have an abortion. Abortion Rights cannot be left to Stormont Assembly, women in Northern Ireland need reproductive freedom. It is time for the left to speak out against the corruption and dealing, and to speak up for women’s rights. We need some mass, militant mobilisation to get all the liberalisation amendments passed, but we need to remember our sisters in Northern Ireland need our solidarity most of all.