With global outrage sparked by Alabama’s new abortion restrictions, Amy O’Neill argues that we shouldn’t ignore the same restrictions in Northern Ireland
Pro-choice campaigners across the world have fought long and hard for the right to choose, with ground breaking legislation being passed in the UK and America in the 1960s and 70s which granted women the right to end a pregnancy if their lives were at risk, it was caused by rape, or if they simply did not have the means or wish to raise a child.
Alabama and a string of states in the US this year have been overturning this valuable legislation, in a crackdown on bodily autonomy and the right to safe and legal abortion care. The changes in legislation in Alabama are now the most restrictive abortion laws in America, effectively banning abortion at any stage of a pregnancy and criminalising anyone who provides an abortion with a sentence of up to 99 years. This is thanks to an all-white, majority male slate of senators who, in the words of Governor Kay Ivey, believe that ‘every life is precious’. This is extremely hypocritical, given that Alabama currently issues the death penalty, and that abortion bans are well documented to endanger the lives of women by subjecting them to dangerous abortions and lack of healthcare. This follows other states cracking down on abortion, including in Georgia, where a ‘heartbeat’ ban has been implemented, making abortion illegal after a heartbeat is detected (roughly six weeks after conception). In other words, a two-week late period. Roe v Wade (1973) declared the right to choose a constitutional right, making the crackdown on abortion care across the South and Midwest unconstitutional, and prompting Senator Elizabeth Warren to suggest that it is part of a widespread attempt to overturn this ground breaking legislation and restrict the bodily autonomy of millions of women and trans people across the US.
This news has rightly sparked outrage around the world for the people of Alabama. However, whilst this is new to people in the USA, it has been the reality for women in Northern Ireland since the 1881 Offences Against the Person Act, which was repealed in the rest of the UK in 1967. This law means that both people who access abortion care and the doctors providing it could be sentenced to life imprisonment and makes abortion only available in the case that the lives of both mother and baby are in danger. Fiona de Llondras, a professor here at the University of Birmingham, has described this law as being ‘considerably more restrictive’ than in Alabama. Cases such as the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar in the Republic of Ireland in 2012 highlight that this legislation doesn’t necessarily protect the lives of the mother and child. Savita had been admitted to hospital complaining of severe back pain and was miscarrying, but the doctors refused her an abortion as the fetus still had a heartbeat. She later died of septicaemia. Her husband said he had absolutely no doubt that she would still be alive had she been allowed an abortion.
Reforms to abortion laws in Northern Ireland have been repeatedly blocked by the conservative DUP, leaving women there unable to access health care without making the dangerous journey to access abortions on the NHS in England and Wales, often in secret. It is the truth that a lack of access to safe abortion care just endangers the lives of those who need or want one. For example, in El Salvador, where abortion is illegal, confusion about legislation and the ban itself leads to dangerous pregnancies such as ectopic pregnancies going ahead, or even teenagers committing suicide, and many people access abortions by buying the drug misoprostol on the street. Pro-choice campaigners often cite the sentiment that illegal abortion doesn’t ban abortion, it just bans safe abortion. In the case of Northern Ireland, the lack of access to abortion care means that poorer women and trans men and non-binary people who might fall pregnant, for whatever reason, are completely unable to access safe and legal care due to monetary factors.
This comparison isn’t to say we shouldn’t be angry at what is happening in the US. Far from it; the abject hypocrisy and cruelty of the thinking that would protect a fetus but condemn a pregnant person to death or prison is terrifying. The crackdown on the right to choose is a direct attack on pregnant people’s bodily autonomy, and their right whether to have a child or not, whether it’s due to trauma, illness, or simply not wanting to or having the means to raise a child. Frustratingly though, there isn’t much we in the UK can do to help women suffering in the US. There is, however, important work to be done here, to make sure that women in Northern Ireland have the same access to basic healthcare and the right to choose that the rest of us do in England, Scotland and Wales. Pro-Choice campaigners such as Alliance for Choice are calling on UK citizens to act in Northern Ireland, simply by emailing their MP to put pressure on the government.
Anger against what’s happening in America is rightful and justified, but don’t forget to look closer to home to see what’s happening in the United Kingdom.