It’s 50 years since the 1967 Abortion Act was passed in Britain, and yet, women in Northern Ireland are still denied the right to choose. Making abortions illegal hasn’t stopped women from having them. It has simply forced them to travel abroad at great cost, risk criminalisation for accessing abortion pills or put their lives at risk with other, dangerous methods of termination.
In the South, the Citizen’s Assembly – set up to advise the government on constitutional issues – has proposed that abortion should be available without restriction up to 12 weeks into pregnancy, and even further for certain cases. While not going far enough, this reflects how quickly public attitudes towards abortion are changing, both North and South of the border. The government were hoping for very limited proposals, and as expected, are now doing their best to sidestep around them. This further proves the need for public action when it comes to winning a woman’s right to choose.
North and South, the political establishment have proved their reluctance to accept change, so we, the people, must be the ones to end these outdated laws. Last year, a poll showed that 58% of people in Northern Ireland believe abortion should be decriminalised, yet this is not supported by any of the main parties. Each party lags well behind their own voters’ attitudes, showing them to be as outdated as they backward laws they stand by. Meanwhile, women continue to face prosecution and the PSNI has stepped up harassment of pro-choice activists, with raids seizing laptops, phones and bank statements.
Jeremy Corbyn’s commitment to extend the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland over the heads of the Stormont politicians should give us confidence, but we cannot wait for change to come from above. There is a clear need for a militant campaign, from people of all backgrounds, North and South, to end the tyrannical laws imposed by leaders who no longer reflect the wants and needs of their population.
One example of the power that grassroots campaigns can have is the abortion pill drone action last year. In open defiance of the police present, abortion pills – regarded as essential medicines by the World Health Organisation – were delivered across the border and taken. The message was clear: ‘our governments will not protect our reproductive rights, and therefore we must take this into our own hands’. We need to build a campaign to demand Northern Ireland leaves the dark ages and women’s right to control our own bodies is recognised.
By Cerys Falvey