Surge in pressure on Northern Ireland abortion laws in wake of Alabama ruling
Written by News on 18/05/2019
Britons outraged over Alabama’s near-total ban on abortion are channelling their anger into attempting to change Northern Ireland’s own restrictive rules – where women can face life in jail for aborting a pregnancy.
A campaign calling on pro-choice supporters to email their MPs to demand action has seen 200 emails sent to politicians every hour since its launch.
Derry Girls actress Nicola Coughlan is one of many who shared the #NowForNI campaign which is being organised by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS).
Coughlan posted on Twitter: “Outraged at Alabama’s #abortion law? Women in Northern Ireland still have no access to legal abortion care in their own country. Take action now. I just emailed my MP – it takes 1 minute.”
The email campaign was launched at midday on Wednesday and clocked up 12,000 emails by Friday evening.
It started after Alabama brought in the most restrictive abortion bill in the whole US.
The state has criminalised abortions at any stage of pregnancy, an act which when the law is enforced in six months’ time will be punishable by up to 99 years or life in prison.
The only exception would be when the woman’s health is at serious risk. The bill contains no exceptions for rape and incest.
The BPAS campaign highlights that women in Northern Ireland has been much the same for more than 150 years.
Women in Northern Ireland have no access to legal abortion services unless they travel abroad thanks to a law made in 1861. Exceptions are only made in extreme medical and mental health circumstances, but not for pregnancies as a result of rape.
Medical staff face prison if they perform abortions if the procedure is not approved by two doctors.
The law meant more than 900 women travelled to England and Wales in 2017 to 2018 to seek a safe termination, according to the latest figures. Only 12 abortions in that time period were allowed to proceed.
The rules are enforced, with a mother currently in court after buying abortion pills for her 15-year-old daughter.
The #NowForNI campaign is not just being backed by celebrities.
Emily, who lives in London and is in her twenties, had an abortion with help from BPAS and the NHS.
She told Sky News: “I was 23 when I had my abortion. There weren’t any dramatic or traumatic circumstances surrounding my decision – it just wasn’t the right time for me. My career was taking off and I just wasn’t ready for a child.
“I was three months pregnant when I realised, which meant the procedure was more invasive and I needed to have an operation. I was referred to BPAS through my NHS GP and I couldn’t believe how easy the process was. The only thing I had to think about was whether the decision was right for me – which it was – and they took care of the rest. And not only that, but also how kind, supportive and empowering everyone at BPAS was.
“Seeing this law passed in Alabama has made me feel angry beyond words. Twenty-five white men deciding what a woman can or can’t do with her body? Give me a break. It’s shocking but it’s not surprising. Women everywhere felt that same feeling in the pit of their stomach when Trump was elected, and this was exactly why. We knew this was coming.”
She continued: “For those of us in the UK, we need to realise that it’s just as much of an issue far closer to home – it’s still the case in Northern Ireland. This has to change.
“I signed the BPAS NowForNI petition and my boyfriend did too. If 100% of pregnancies are caused by men, then at least 50% of the responsibility towards making sure women have the right to be in control of their own bodies should be coming from them too.”
A spokesperson for BPAS told Sky News: “The position in America is appalling to watch. People around the world are seeing women’s human rights rolled back before their eyes. But we can’t forget that women in Northern Ireland have never been granted these rights.
“While our politicians condemn Alabama for its actions we need to make sure they take the necessary actions to ensure all women in the UK have the rights they deserve. Westminster has the power to act on abortion in Northern Ireland and it’s running out of excuses not to do so.”
The campaign comes as a Labour peer claimed the abortion laws could be changed in Westminster using an “alternative path” as it is a human rights issue, which would take it out of the hands of the Northern Irish Assembly – to whom the matter is devolved to.
Lord Alf Dubs said: “The alternative path… is to go down the human rights path and say that human rights is not a devolved matter… and therefore human rights is the responsibility of Westminster so it can be legislated upon without the need for the Assembly.”
Pro-life activists have worked to maintain Northern Ireland’s abortion laws, with group Right To Life running their own campaign to call on the government to “oppose any moves to override the devolution settlement and introduce abortion to Northern Ireland.”
They do not recognise abortion as a human rights issue.
On their website, Right To Life write: “100,000 people are alive today because of Northern Ireland’s abortion laws. Sadly abortion campaigners want to see an end to these laws.”