The UK government is denying Northern Irish women their fundamental rights

Kellie O’Dowd from Alliance for Choice writes that the government could intervene to extend reproductive rights to Northern Ireland. It is just choosing not to.

May 31, 2018 · 5 min read
A memorial march for Savita Halappanavar. Photo by William Murphy.

The availability of free, safe, legal abortion and affordable, reliable contraception is a fundamental right. Being able to decide if and when to have a child (or more children) improves women’s educational outcomes, our career prospects, our health, the health of our relationships, the well-being of our children, our lifetime earnings, and our sex lives. Women benefit tremendously from reproductive freedom, and so does society as a whole. Unless of course you live in Northern Ireland – which, since the resounding referendum result on 26th May, is the only part of this collection of islands where women are still denied access to basic, life-saving healthcare.

Although abortion is legal in Northern Ireland in very restricted circumstances, the pathway into the NHS is severely limited by the ongoing failure of Department of Health to publish final Termination of Pregnancy Guidance. This leaves health professionals with no clear guidelines on dealing with the issue of abortion. Last year 13 ‘legal’ abortions were carried out in Northern Ireland; 700+ travelled to England and beyond, and others took abortion pills risking prosecution to end their pregnancies.

Having been heavily involved in the Repeal the 8th Campaign in the Republic of Ireland and being thrilled at the resounding result last weekend, we now know that there’s widespread support for change in how women’s reproductive health is treated. Now it’s time for the UK Government to listen to the people of Northern Ireland.

In October 2017, funding was made available from the Women and Equalities Department  for Northern Irish people to access to terminations by travelling to England. But there are always reasons women can’t travel; insecure immigration status, no access to a passport, coercive control relationships, disabilities and other health problems to name just a few.

However the availability of free healthcare in England does not address the UK Government’s  duties, as noted by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) who commented that thousands of women and girls in Northern Ireland are subjected to grave and systematic violations of rights through being compelled to either travel outside Northern Ireland to procure a legal abortion, or to illegally self-administer abortion pills without legal recourse to emergency health services.

The government’s slim majority comes from a devil’s bargain struck with the virulently anti-choice DUP. Perhaps this is why the prime minister has remained silent on the historic repeal of the Republic of Ireland’s 8th Amendment – and has shown no will to challenge Arlene Foster’s determination to hold back the tide of progress. By washing their hands of the matter, the government is putting people’s lives at risk.

Even if there were a functioning devolved Assembly, the UK government is still obliged to remedy breaches of International Human Rights treaties, particularly with regard to CEDAW. Provision is made for this within the Northern Ireland Act. Where a devolved administration fails to uphold rights, the UK Ministers have the power to intervene to protect people from such gross discrimination.

We demand the Westminster government take urgent action to remedy these breaches of human rights. On 7 June, the UK’s Supreme Court will deliver its ruling on a case which challenges whether Northern Ireland’s extremely restrictive abortion laws constitute a violation of human rights – after Amnesty international has already condemned them. If the Court rules that they are indeed infringing on people’s human rights, then the government will have nowhere left to hide.

Furthermore, we reject the suggestion that we need a referendum. It’s not required by law – the UK government already has the power to intervene. And it’s not desired by women, who don’t want to have to continually re-litigate their rights to basic, life-saving healthcare.

In the immediate aftermath of the Yes verdict, the Democratic Unionist Party came out to say that the UK cannot act, because abortion is a devolved matter. However there is no functioning devolved Assembly in Northern Ireland, and there isn’t likely to be one until after Brexit in 2019, and there has been no Executive in Northern Ireland since January 2017.  Instead we have a political vacuum and no political accountability. If the Assembly does return, and the DUP with other anti-choice members of the legislative assembly choose to use the Petition of Concern, legislation will be blocked. Once again leaving Northern Ireland as one of the most oppressive regimes in Western Europe when it comes to women’s rights.

It is also interesting to note that Sinn Fein, the other power block in Northern Ireland, fully supported the move to repeal the 8th amendment in Ireland and called also for Westminster to step in to legislate for Equal Marriage and an Irish Language Act. But nonetheless, they have decided that they do not want British legislation on abortion. Which begs the question – why not?

The right to have basic autonomy over your own body; to decide when and if you have children; to have healthcare provided to you, and to be treated as a human being who knows what is best for yourself and your family remains a fundamental demand of our movement; anything less is reproductive slavery. As Rosa Luxemburg stated “What presents itself to us as bourgeois legality is nothing but the violence of the ruling class, a violence raised to an obligatory norm from the outset.”  We will continue to challenge the bourgeois control of Irish Women’s bodies until we have achieved free, safe, and legal abortion.

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