Northern Ireland: Abortion Is a Medical Issue, Not a Criminal One

When you think of Northern Ireland, what comes to mind? Is it beautiful scenery, the Titanic, maybe Game of Thrones? Or do you think of archaic, out-dated abortion laws?

For England, Scotland, and Wales, Friday marked the fiftieth anniversary of the passing of the 1967 Abortion Act, legalising abortion until the 24th week of pregnancy. However, just across the Irish Sea, many still fight for these same rights.

There, women are only entitled to abortion if the pregnancy puts their life in danger; women who have conceived through rape, or with fatal foetal abnormalities, are forced to carry to full term. Those caught terminating a pregnancy will at best get a criminal record – at worst they face life imprisonment.

This week, an appeal was brought to the UK Supreme Court by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC), arguing that NI’s laws breached the human rights of its population. Three women, all of whom had been refused abortions in Northern Ireland – despite being told that their unborn babies would die before, during or shortly after birth – spoke alongside an NIHRC barrister in support of the appeal.

One such speaker, Ashleigh Topley, was told at 20 weeks that her baby’s limbs had stopped growing, and would die as soon as she was born. Doctors told her that there was nothing she could do – because her own life was not endangered, she had to carry the baby to full term.

Describing the experience as ‘torture’, Ashleigh recalled how strangers would see the bump and ask about her baby: “When are you due? Do you know if it’s a boy or a girl? Are you excited?”. Can you imagine being constantly reminded of your pregnancy, knowing it was destined to end in the death of your baby? When Ashleigh gave birth 15 weeks later, her daughter’s heart stopped, killing her.

Liam Gibson, from the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, called the hearing “an attack on the life of unborn children, particularly the disabled”. Alongside this society, many Northern Irish Catholic bishops, and other pro-life groups, spoke against the reform of abortion laws at the Supreme Court. But when a baby is destined for a life of suffering, or no life at all, surely denying the mother an abortion is the most cruel and inhumane option? Forcing her to carry a baby, knowing that she’ll never get to love and nurture her child?

On the 29th June of this year, the British government announced that Northern Irish women would be entitled to free NHS abortions in England, after a Labour-led campaign – prior to this, they would have to pay around £900, on top of flights and accommodation. While this is a step in the right direction, it just isn’t good enough. In a country where over two thirds of the population believe abortion laws are too strict (according to a poll by Amnesty International NI), we shouldn’t have to travel across the sea, and pay for travel and accommodation, to terminate a pregnancy.

It isn’t criminal to want an abortion, and laws suggesting this is the case are humiliating and degrading. My country is a beautiful place, with a rich history and a plethora of amazing landmarks, but it’s hard to be proud of my heritage when we’re still stuck in the political dark ages. With the Supreme Court’s ruling due to arrive early 2018, all we can hope for is a much-needed revision of our abortion laws, and soon.

Megan Cummings

(Image courtesy of The Belfast Telegraph)