Diane Abbott has tabled an amendment to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, due for its third reading on the 22nd of October, calling for an extension of the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland. This is precisely the same amendment that Emily Thornberry MP was forced to withdraw back in May, when Gordon Brown assured her that the move would be seen as a slap in the face by the nine DUP members who swung the 42 days vote in the Prime Minister’s favour. Today at noon, forty women from Northern Ireland will hand into Number Ten a letter signed by the leaders of civil society in NI supporting abortion rights for women in the region.
The women want to meet as many MPs as possible whilst they are in London, in order to counter some of the anti-abortion propaganda which is doing the rounds in Westminster. MPs are, for instance, being told by the government that they should not adopt an ‘imperialist’ or ‘colonialist’ attitude to NI and impose something on the region.
‘But there is no question of Westminster ‘imposing’ abortion on NI; it is already a reality of life here,’ said Alliance for Choice spokesperson Goretti Horgan. ‘Each year thousands of Northern Irish women travel to Britain and Europe and pay for private abortions. For women living on low incomes, getting the money together on time is impossible. An unwanted pregnancy can leave some women in a desperate situation – which is why we now find some women turning to the internet to buy the abortion pill.’ Women who have taken black-market abortion pills often present at hospitals in Northern Ireland with terrible bleeding – and if the reason for their symptoms is discovered, some could face a life sentence once they recover, last night’s audience was told.
‘The poverty of some women in NI also impacts on the numbers of late abortions in Britain,’ said Ms Horgan. ‘The time it takes some women to find enough money to have an abortion means that women from here are three times more likely than British women to have abortions after 20 weeks. However, thousands of others are forced to continue pregnancies they find intolerable. This includes women pregnant as a result of rape and sexual abuse’, says the Alliance for Choice spokesperson.
‘If you’re afraid of falling into some colonialist mindset by overriding Stormont, please, forget it – we need our human rights,’ said Dr Audrey Simpson of the Northern Irish Family Planning Association, reminding those present that when the Bill was last on the table in May, Northern Irish MPs had ‘no qualms’ in voting to cut the time limit from 24 to 12 weeks for English, Welsh and Scottish women.
Whilst a majority of Stormont MPs are vehemently anti-choice, they do not represent the needs and opinions of their constituents on this matter. Northern Irish MPs are elected along sectarian lines, with a simple choice between orange and green candidates. Since 1967 over 80,000 women have travelled to England to have abortions, but there’s one big reason why more pro-choice women, doctors and lawyers aren’t speaking out, according to Annie Campbell of the Alliance for Choice: ‘they are afraid’.
Ms Campbell explained how women suspected of seeking abortions in Northern Ireland have been the victims of appalling abuse, adding that anyone vocally supporting the pro-choice cause in Northern Ireland can expect significant harrassment. ‘This is a global war and, as usual, women’s bodies are on the frontline,’ she said. She urged all the women and men present at the meeting to lobby their MPs, asking them to speak out for Northern Irish women ‘because at the moment, we can’t speak for ourselves. There’s no use in us lobbying our MPs for the right to legal abortion – for all we know we’ll just be put on a hit-list,’ she said.
Dr Evan Harris MP, who has been instrumental in furthering the pro-choice cause in parliament, repeated the call for pro-choice citizens to lobby their MPs and urge them to vote for the positive amendments on the bill, reminding those present that ‘this is a once in a generation opportunity to modernise the law’.
It’s also the last chance Northern Irish women will have to fight for their rights to legal abortion for a very long time: soon, criminal law will be devolved to Stormont, after which ‘we won’t see positive change for generations,’ said Annie Campbell.
If you agree that it is unacceptable that a group of women in the UK are still treated as second-class citizens and denied reproductive self-determination, here’s how you can get involved –
WHAT YOU CAN DO:
1)Write to your MP, asking him or her to vote in support of the amendment extending abortion rights to Northern Ireland, and encourage your friends and family to do the same. ‘We get so much hate-mail from pro-life groups that every supportive letter we receive makes a genuine difference’, said Katy Clark MP last night.
2) Sign the online FPA petition in support of extending rights to Northern Ireland, here.
3)Come along to the protest organised by Abortion Rights UK ahead of the crucial vote – details will be posted here as soon as they appear and will also be available at Abortion Rights.
4)Add your voice to the Pro-Choice Majority website, containing testimonials of delays and obstruction to the process of medical abortion by representatives of the 80% of the UK who support a woman’s right to choose.