The following article is an excerpt from our latest printed Ecosprinter titled Reclaim Your Rights! – The Social Issue. We decided to bring you the articles from this edition in a digital form as well.
by Sarah Laverty
On the 23 October 2019, a woman stood before a jury in Belfast Crown Court and was found ‘not guilty’ of the charges brought against her. The prosecution offered no evidence – unsurprising, considering that the law she was being charged under no longer existed.
The woman had been brought to court for breaking the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, a law which, until recently, made abortion in Northern Ireland illegal in almost all circumstances, with a penalty of up to life imprisonment for those pro-curing or assisting others to procure an abortion. Five years before, the woman had bought and supplied abortion pills to her then 15-year-old daughter. The prosecution of the woman under this law brought about a public outcry across the country and intensified campaigns to decriminalise abortion.
Before October 2019 Northern Ireland was the only part of the UK where abortion services were not available. Attempts, however, had been made to liberalise the law through the country’s devolved government*. But in 2017 the Northern Ireland Assembly collapsed and has remained inactive until the time of writing, which led campaigners to put pressure on Westminster to extend reproductive justice to people in Northern Ireland.
* The government of Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Executive, that functions under, but in certain areas independently of the UK government.
In July 2019 Labour Members of Parliament Stella Creasy and Conor McGinn put forward amendments to the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Act 2019 in front of the British Parliament, which would legalise same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland and repeal the 158-year-old law governing abortion, if the Northern Ireland Assembly failed to form a government by October 21st. The legislation passed, and with the devolved government still inactive, on October 22nd abortion was decriminalised throughout the country, and same-sex marriage was legalised.
Emma Gallen, Outreach Co-Ordinator for Alliance for Choice, is one of the young women who led the campaign to decriminalise abortion in Northern Ireland. Emma got involved with the movement at the time of another public court case surrounding the country’s abortion laws. She said: “In 2016 there was a prosecution of a then 21-year-old who had taken abortion pills when she was 19 and was found by her housemates – that case really struck me because it could have been anyone. It just re-ally hit me that this was an active law and it is impacting people.”
The change in law came about less than 18 months after the repeal of the Eighth Amendment in the Republic of Ireland which removed the constitutional ban on abortion. Both in the north and the south of the island the campaigns for abortion reform have been led by grassroots, feminist organisations, which placed solidarity at the centre of their movement. After the repeal of the Eighth Amendment the hashtag #TheNorthisNext began immediately expressing support for people in Northern Ireland, and hundreds of activists crossed the border to join campaigners at the annual Rally for Choice march in Belfast in September 2019.
Engaging the public was vital for campaigns in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. For the last two years Emma has run a weekly stall in the centre of Belfast which aims to engage members of the public on the topic of abortion, breaking down some of the persistent myths. “There are some negative experiences on the stall. There are people who tell us that what we’re doing is wrong. Some people come over and tell us that their daughter had an abortion and really regrets it; or that their daughter had an unplanned pregnancy and it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to them.”
“But we also get a lot of supporters. Once there was a woman who didn’t want to come over to us but I could see her eyeing up the stall so I walked over to her. She was heavily pregnant and didn’t want to be seen to be signing the petition we had that day, but she did want to sign it.”
“She told me that in the past she had been sexually assaulted and one of the things that really stayed with her was the fear of pregnancy and having to live with that forever. She was happy when she got her period afterwards and now had a much wanted pregnancy with someone she loved – the whole experience really shaped her pro-choice views.”
Volunteers on the stall faced significant legal risks by listening to the stories of people who have had abortions. Under the 1861 law people who had taken abortion pills had committed a criminal offence and it is illegal in Northern Ireland not to report a crime you have knowledge of.
“A few women have travelled and have never told anyone about it – we’re the first people they’ve spoken to about it. It can get emotional” – said Emma. “There have been times when we have been told that people have taken abortion pills and that is a risk for everyone there – when we were hearing those stories we were breaking the law by not reporting them.”
For the campaigners, the battle is not over yet. While abortion has been decriminalised through-out the country, women and pregnant people do not currently have local services which provide abortions. Emma said: “Access is what is next. We don’t actually have abortion services in Northern Ireland that are readily available.”
“A government consultation is happening until the 16 December and following that we should get some form of actual access by the end of March 2020. We need to keep going until then.”
Alliance for Choice, set up in 1996, campaigns for free, safe and legal abortion access in Northern Ireland. For information on how to support them visit www.alliance4choice.com or follow their Instagram and Twitter accounts @All4ChoiceThe quotes by Emma Gallen are from an inter-view conducted by the author at an event titled “The Long Road to Equality” hosted by Green Par-ty of Northern Ireland Member of the Legislative Assembly, Clare Bailey, in Stormont.
Sarah is a member of the Green Party of Northern Ireland where she has previously sat on the party’s Executive Committee as the Party Development Officer. She studied English and Spanish at Queen’s University Belfast and shortly after became involved with Belfast Feminist Network where she supported campaigns for reproductive justice. Sarah currently works as a Policy and Public Affairs Consultant for NUS-USI, the national student movement in Northern Ireland.