Women Speak Up Against an Archaic Abortion Law in Northern Ireland

In June, I joined 199 other women in Northern Ireland in signing an open letter admitting to taking the medical abortion pill or buying it for someone else, crimes that carry a maximum sentence of life in prison under Northern Ireland’s Offences Against the Persons Act, passed in 1861. We wanted to highlight the ridiculousness of the law by challenging the authorities to enforce it.

So far, not one of us has been investigated. Meanwhile, earlier this month a 21-year-old woman appeared in a Belfast court for allegedly acquiring and then taking the pill in order to cause an abortion. She is the first woman in almost 40 years to be charged under the act, which has been on the books since Queen Victoria was on the throne.

Unlike me and my fellow signatories, the woman does not appear to be part of any advocacy group and, therefore, does not have access to the strong support network we do. It begs the question: Why has she been singled out?

More importantly, why should any woman face the threat of prosecution for accessing reproductive health care? The abortion pill in question—actually two medicines called mifepristone and misoprostol—can be used in the first nine weeks of pregnancy. In Europe, more than 1.5 million women have used the drugs, which have been on the World Health Organization’s list of essential medicines since 2005 and are deemed safer than antibiotics.

Sadly, Northern Ireland stands out for its degrading, barbaric treatment of women. The United Kingdom’s Abortion Act 1967, which allows abortions in certain situations, does not apply here. Under our 1861 law, women cannot obtain an abortion even in cases of rape, incest, or fatal fetal abnormalities.

In November, in a case filed by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, a Belfast judge found that the 1861 law is incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. But he left it up to our legislators to make things right. So far, they have refused to do so—although their counterparts in Sierra Leone recently voted to change a similar law to make way for safe abortion legislation in that country.

All women, no matter where they live, should be able to access free, safe, legal abortion and be cared for close to home by medical practitioners. Instead, current laws leave women with no alternative but to take matters into their own hands to end a crisis pregnancy. Every year, approximately 1,000 women from the North and 4,000 women from the Republic (which has its own draconian law) travel to England and beyond to access abortion at a cost ranging from £600 to £2,000 ($850 to $2,800 USD). The medical abortion pill can be purchased on the internet and taken at home for around £50 ($70).

For many women, the decision to take the pill is a no-brainer. They don’t have to travel or lie to family, friends, colleagues, and employers about why they are traveling. And they don’t have to come up with a lot of cash. Unfortunately, for women in Northern Ireland, that option is against a law that, however antiquated, can still be enforced, as we saw in Belfast.

Soon after the unnamed woman’s arrest, pro-choice groups organized a protest rally outside Belfast City Hall calling for the case against her to be dismissed immediately. Solidarity protests were held in Dublin, London, Cork, Galway, and Berlin.

The hypocrisy and unworkability of the 1861 law are shameful. The woman charged is not a criminal. I am not a criminal. The others who signed the letter are not criminals. It is time for our legislators to trust women and to enact decent reproductive health care legislation throughout Ireland.  

11 Comments

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The law should be changed to bring it into the 21st century and to give women a choice over what happens to their body and to prevent unwanted children being brought into the world.

Because this is the 21st century

this is archaic.

That law is totally unfair. Who is going to support these large number of kids. You are going back to the middle ages.

It's really absurd thing for 21 century society.

Treat this as a health problem, not a crime problem.
Social care are better solutions to save unborn lifes than penalties.
Remember the "Miserere nobis".

WE are agree to work together

There is no right killing people.
The abortion is not a right of a woman, as soon as a pregnancy appears this means that God has decided to send a new hope (child) to the 2 members of completing this procedure.
Everyone should be responsible to undertake the consequencies of his / her acts.
We want the ''pleasure'' but we are eager to kill new human beings (in the cases of pregnancies).
This comes from our Selfish character, this is opposite to the Society rights, yes ladies and gentlemen !
The Society, globally, demands Serious and Responsible people, not materialistic existences who are interested only in desire...
But it is not far away from today when the old Culture on this matter will again dominate the whole world, the respect of every human being, either alive as already born or alive as infant !
We know and understand that there are some elitistic persons who try to impose the maximum possible decrease of the global population. And except of a, real this time, World War, this that has been cunningly named ''right'' tremendously helps them to achieve their daily targets.
We are here to prevent them from reducing the total population on the level of 1 billion souls.
Because a human being is firstly a Soul given by God to existence and then is a person, not repeatable at all.
We will win !

But nobody acknowledges that abortion in intrinsically evil...it is, in fact, the taking of another human life. Isn't destroying an unborn child, who cannot defend itself, morally questionable? Before anyone "goes there," personal rights shall not infringe upon another persons rights.

I believe that women should not be criminalised for making the difficult decision to have a termination. It is against the human rights of the woman to deny them this choice. Women having to travel to other parts of the UK to have a termination is ridiculous and adds extra stress to their difficult decision .There is a personal and financial cost implication which will only force women to take actions which jeopardise their own health, like using drugs from the internet . In cases of rape ,incest, child sexual exploitation, pregnant female with learning disability , foetal abnormalities there should be more choices available in Northern Ireland. No female makes the decision to terminate lightly .

This "law" says that even in the case of rape or incest the female (because most incest victims are not yet considered women) MUST carry the child.

So they are slaves, not only to their abuser but to a law that states they are, well, worthless, because they are only female??

They need to wake up and see that what that law does is encourage women to take risks with their own lives.

To those who would revile the women and girls who do not want to carry their abuser's child to term, you need to think, if that was you daughter, and she was in that place, would you honestly tell her what you are telling others?? If so you need to think about that, and if not then you need to stop being so hypocritical.

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