Two weeks on from the historic victory for women’s rights in Northern Ireland, Naomi Connor, Co-Convenor of Alliance for Choice, tells us what abortion decriminalisation means in reality and why the battle isn’t over yet.
21 October 1879 is often highlighted as the date that Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb. Now 21 October will mark the date when, finally, after many years of campaigning, the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, was repealed. Until 2 weeks ago, that piece of legislation (specifically sections 58 and 59), denied women and pregnant people in Northern Ireland abortion healthcare.
It also carried with it prosecution, and a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. In recent years, the court cases and prosecutions that ensued went some way to proving this was just a threat in statute, but a terrifying reality for too many in Northern Ireland. Among these included a mother who bought her then 15 year old daughter abortion pills online, and who resultantly felt the full rigour of criminal law for exercising no more than bodily autonomy. This last remaining court case has finally been dropped following the landmark law change.
Abortion in NI is now decriminalised and medical professionals will not face prosecution when providing safe, consensual abortion care up to 24 weeks in line with clinical guidance and medical regulation.
In theory at least, abortion can now be provided in Northern Ireland. What isn’t so clear is how women and pregnant people will receive the abortion healthcare we have deserved for so long from the Health Service. Also of paramount concern is whether in accessing that care, we can be free from anti-choice harassment and misinformation, which has reached dizzying levels of hyperbolic fervour in recent months and weeks.
We have also been witness to political theatrics, as the DUP and others made a show of attempting to block the new legislation. On the eve of decriminalisation, the NI Assembly was recalled and a series of futile tactics were employed to maintain the status quo of reproductive coercion.
It did not succeed in the absence of a functioning NI Executive. However, it did expose an outright disregard that exists in the minds of many politicians and the anti-choice lobby for those of us who have travelled (at least 62,000 since 1967) to access abortion care in the UK.
We are not, and never have been, invisible. Like those of us who have fought for many decades for our right to access abortion as an essential part of reproductive healthcare, we are an inconvenient truth.
Despite knowing that as of 22 October abortion is no longer be a criminal matter, lack of abortion provision, as well as institutionalised stigma around abortion, remain.
When the United Nations’ CEDAW inquiry into abortion in Northern Ireland called on the UK Government to take legislative action on what they rightfully concluded was a ‘grave and systematic’ violation of rights, they did so in earnest, having engaged those affected. To call for anything short of the 13 recommendations made by the UN in that report or to deny those seeking free, safe, legal and local access to abortion services is a travesty and inhumane.
A consultation process, announced on 4 November, now follows on how the new legislation will be implemented. Whatever transpires, it is critical that this consultation is not used as a mechanism to inhibit the recommendations of the UN CEDAW report or to create barriers to the abortion services we need.
We must challenge the harmful rhetoric and misuse of information that is emanating from the anti-choice lobby.
Rather than ‘protecting our women’, it actually seeks to disturb and traumatise people into being ashamed about their choices. We have been subjected to this emotional manipulation all along but the tenor in recent weeks has risen to fever pitch and it is highly likely to continue. It is vital that we continue to disseminate scientifically robust and normalising information on reproductive healthcare in the face of such hostilities. Despite the anti-choice sloganising of ‘both lives matter’ we maintain they stand only for reproductive coercion.
Alliance for Choice will not be deterred in its campaign for women and pregnant people-centred abortion healthcare provision. We will continue our campaign against abortion stigma and for normalisation of abortion in NI. We look forward to working with those political representatives, organisations and individuals who work towards reproductive justice for all.
To those who would refuse that, we have this to say, ‘We will not be silenced. We will not be deterred. We are here, standing strong in our rightful place.’