Westminster has been told time and time again by the public, UN committees and even comments from supreme court judges to act to reform the draconian abortion law in Northern Ireland.
Finally, they have acted. Westminster has voted overwhelmingly to uphold the rights of LGBT+ people, as well as women and people who can get pregnant, by adding amendments to the Executive Function and Executive Formation Bill.
We’ve been without our devolved government for over two and a half years in Northern Ireland and this bill was intended to further delay the requirement on the Secretary of State to call an election. However, it has proved a useful vehicle in the struggle for marriage equality and abortion rights.
Currently under the 1861 Offences against the Person Act a woman who has an abortion, and anyone who helps her, could face up to life in prison. A woman is awaiting trial in November for getting pills online for her 15 year old daughter, pregnant from an abusive relationship.
The law in Northern Ireland is one of the harshest in the world. There have been raids of activist homes and workplaces. Clinics and family planning services are picketed by ‘protestors’ with graphic images and rosary beads. Whether we consider ourselves to be British or Irish, we don’t have the same right to bodily autonomy as our siblings in both Ireland and Great Britain. Yet.
This result and these amendments have not come out of the ether. They are the result of years, decades even, of campaigning, lobbying, protesting and relationship building by campaigning groups Love Equality and Alliance for Choice.
There is a lot of cross over between the groups, with many activists impacted by both (LGBT+ people can still get pregnant!) These amendments are the result of working with MPs, human rights groups, trade and students unions and relevant professionals, not ‘cherry picked’ issues as some opponents have suggested.
The most important element in this struggle is the actions of individuals all working towards a shared goal. Legal challenges would not be possible without the willingness of women like Sarah Ewart, Ashleigh Topley and Denise Phelan who have shared their stories in court.
Similarly two couples, Grianne Close and Shannon Sickles and Henry and Christopher Flanagan-Kane, are challenging the lack of marriage equality by way of Judicial Review. Busting abortion stigma is down to people like Naomi Conor and Kellie Turtle who have spoken publicly and frankly about their experience, and the volunteers who engage with the public weekly at our stall.
Then there are our supporters, who buy and wear our merchandise, turning up to protests, starting conversations with friends and family, and writing to their MP – MPs like Stella Creasy who has been a long-time supporter following a plea from a constituent who was active in London Irish ARC.
Her amendment could see abortion decriminalised in Northern Ireland in around 100 days.
However nothing is set in stone. The law will only be changed in the event that Stormont does not return by 21st October and the government legislates on the issue.
In the time between now and potential decriminalisation, around 300 people will travel to Great Britain for abortion care, unknown numbers will use safe but illegal abortion pills from Women on Web or Women Help Women. Yet more will be forced to continue with an unwanted pregnancy, or do something desperate. The 21st of October will not be soon enough for them.
The votes yesterday were momentous: for the first time the majority of the House of Commons, not just individual MPs or particular parties, stood with us.
We are hopeful that change is within our reach and we won’t stop until there is free, safe, legal, and local abortion access for everyone who wants or needs it.
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