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Northern Ireland abortion law: change needed


Northern Ireland, department of health, abortion figures 2017/18, bpas, abortion rights, Northern Ireland, Northern Irish women must be able to access the care they need at home.

Figures published this week by Northern Ireland’s Department of Health have shown that in 2017/18, just 12 abortions were performed in Northern Ireland – the lowest figure on record. In 2007/08, 47 terminations were performed.

These figures represent the continuation of a downward trend which began in 2013/14 when new guidance was issued by Edwin Poots, Northen Ireland’s Health Minister at the time.

That guidance highlighted potential criminal sanctions for healthcare staff involved in “illegal” abortions, creating a “mood of fear” among clinicians who had previously felt able to provide termination care.

Since 2017 women from Northern Ireland have been able to access funded abortion care in England, Wales, and Scotland.

However, the strain of travel, the fact that women must often come alone without the support of their partner or parent, and the shame of undergoing a procedure that is illegal in their own country can be extremely distressing for some women.

In a survey conducted by British Pregnancy Advisory Service (bpas), Northern Irish women who had accessed abortion care in England in 2018 told of the hardship of travelling overseas for treatment:

“The physical pain, bleeding and nausea were barbaric for me for the first 24 hours. With the strongest painkillers I was not functional. The flight home to NI was humiliating. Vomiting on the plane and unable to walk off the plane without assistance. To then know – whilst I was in such extreme pain, that my partner had to bring me to the toilet, clean me and change my sanitary pads – that I could not reaccess the clinic had something gone wrong was terrifying.”

“As a single mother, unexpectedly finding myself pregnant again was a big shock. I tried to come to terms with it but then… I ended up in hospital on a drip as I had an extreme form of morning sickness called hyperemesis gravidarum. I had little to no childcare and I was so ill I struggled to look after my children. I knew I couldn’t continue with my pregnancy. I had no choice… I had to leave all my babies behind and was gone for two days. After the procedure I just wanted to go home, I was so upset but I couldn’t, my flight home wasn’t until the next day.”

“Although the procedure and my travel/accommodation was covered, my partner had to pay 280.00 in flights… If he had not been able to afford this I would have had to go by myself – the thought of which is truly horrendous.  We had to leave around 5 in the morning and didn’t return until 10 the next night, meaning we were gone for nearly 48 hours for a procedure that took around an hour in total.”

Despite the government funding, women in Northern Ireland continue to use abortion pills purchased online, illegally, risking up to life imprisonment.

The online provider Women on Web has reported only a minimal drop in requests (3 per cent) since the scheme came into operation.

Women in coercive relationships, those who cannot afford to take time off work and those unable to find appropriate childcare are among those most likely to find travel impossible.

The 1861 Offences Against the Person Act (OAPA) criminalised abortion in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

The 1967 Abortion Act, which did not decriminalise abortion but provides legal exemptions to the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, was not extended to Northern Ireland, where, under current law, abortion is only permissible where there is a risk to the woman’s life or a risk that she would become a “physical or mental wreck”.

In 2018, a Private Members Bill tabled by Diana Johnson MP to decriminalise abortion in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland through the repeal of the relevant sections of the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act passed its first stage with cross-party support.

And MPs have signalled that they will seek further legislative opportunities to end the near-total ban on abortion in Northern Ireland, including via an amendment to the government’s now-published Domestic Abuse Bill.

Ann Furedi, Chief Executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, said: “T[hese] figures demonstrate the increasing need for the repeal of Northern Ireland’s strict abortion laws, which every day force women overseas and threaten others who are unable to travel with criminalisation.

“The chilling effect of the current law, which has been exacerbated by guidance threatening healthcare professionals with criminal punishment, is preventing clinicians from providing the care their patients need.

“While funded abortion care in Great Britain has been a step forward, it is simply not enough.

“Northern Irish women must be able to access the care they need at home, supported by their friends and family.”

To read ‘Northern Ireland Termination of Pregnancy Statistics 2017/18’, click here.

Please help: contact your MP and ask them to support Diana Johnson’s Bill.


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