On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Abortion Act, activists from Feminist Fightback found ourselves dressed as flight attendants, transforming the London Overground into the cabin of an Abortion Airlines Boeing 67. We distributed our own version of inflight safety cards and presented a special inflight safety announcement, advising passengers that ‘the exits…lead to an unsafe backstreet abortion and possible death…please assume the brace position for the duration of this Abortion Airlines flight”. We were met with whoops and cheers from passengers who, like us, are appalled by the fact that the Act still does not extend to the North of Ireland and that at least two people per day have to board a flight to travel to England to terminate a pregnancy. Fifty years on from the Abortion Act there are still people living in the UK denied this basic human right. This includes many migrants who, as NHS charges are introduced and health workers legally obligated to check immigration status, are deterred from accessing both abortion and maternity services.
The Abortion Act, passed on 27th October 1967, was a significant victory, due to feminist organising that demanded that women have the right to control their own bodies. The Act made abortion free, safe and legal and ended the practice of dangerous and deadly backstreet abortions in Scotland, England and Wales. But before you crack open the champagne, you should know that this was never extended to Northern Ireland. Here, fifty years later, abortion remains legal even in cases of rape, incest and fetal abnormality. That so many people from the North of Ireland have to travel to other parts of the UK to terminate an unwanted pregnancy has become the subject of renewed media attention and political discussion in recent months. There have been some very welcome recent developments: Northern Irish people are now able to self-refer to abortion clinics in England with funding for the procedure provided by the Equalities Office, and on Tuesday Minister for Women and Equalities Justine Greening announced that those earning less than £15,600 will be able to claim back travel and accommodation costs.
But this loophole proves wildly insufficient for people who can’t travel because they can’t afford to take a day off work, who live at home and cannot account for their absence to disapproving parents, who have controlling partners, or who have caring responsibilities that require them to stay near home. Nor does it cover the costs of the 700 people who travelled last year from Northern Ireland to have an abortion. Expenses claims will not be allowed for those who earn more – even slightly more – than £15,600. Importantly, testimonies of Northern Irish people who have had abortions elsewhere in the UK speak of the loneliness, fear and isolation of travelling to terminate a pregnancy, and of returning to shame and stigma. There is no way to monetarily subsidise this often very sad and alienating experience and it remains unacceptable that people cannot access abortions closer to home. It means that women who are forced to rely on Northern Irish medical services are placed in danger for want of simple, life-saving procedures denied to them not on medical grounds, but because lawmakers had decided that their lives are not worth saving.
Further to this, as of 23rd October patients are now subject to passport checks when accessing secondary care in the NHS, including maternity and abortion services. This is the latest step in the process of introducing health charges and deterring migrants from accessing health care. This hostile, racist move by the Tory government effectively means that hospital pregnancy and maternity units, which should be places of care and compassion, have been transformed into borders. Midwives and doctors are forced to act as border guards, with racial profiling of patients likely.
Until all people are guaranteed access to reproductive justice, we cannot rely on the partial provisions of The Abortion Act. Lawmakers continue to exclude people from basic medical care on the grounds of class, race, migration status and simply where you happen to be born. It’s an outrage and an embarrassment to any 21st century society, and cannot be allowed to continue.