On Saturday thousands of women marched in solidarity with women in the US. Katherine O’Brien was one of them, but she was also marching for the rights of women much closer to home.
By the time you read this, we in Northern Ireland will have marched alongside thousands of others across the globe in defence of women’s rights. While Saturday’s marches were an important moment of solidarity with women in the US who are facing the daunting prospect of a (gulp) Trump presidency, we need to remind ourselves that the challenges they face aren’t isolated to America. In fact, the battle for reproductive choice is still far from won much closer to home.
After Trump’s election, it was reported that there was an increase in the numbers of women in America having contraceptive coils fitted in a pre-emptive strike against potential restrictions on contraception and abortion services.
While Trump has, in the past, described himself as “pro-choice”, since launching his presidential campaign he has remained frighteningly consistent in his opposition to abortion, pledging repeatedly to reverse decades of hard-fought-for progress.
It would be easy but dangerous to dismiss Trump as incapable of succeeding where previous anti-choice American presidents have failed.
“Every day women from Northern Ireland are forced to travel to another country for abortion care. Despite being women resident in the UK, paying UK taxes, they are not even entitled to NHS-funded abortion care.”
Sure, this is a man who couldn’t even secure a Bruce Springsteen tribute act for his inauguration – a feat many of us mere mortals have managed to accomplish for our Dad’s surprise 60th – but there are legions of motivated, well-funded, and aggressive pro-life campaigners who are ready to ensure he makes good on his pro-life pledges. The threat is real, and the lines of attack numerous.
During the presidential campaign, Trump suggested that women who end a pregnancy should be “punished.” He has committed to appointing Supreme Court judges who will repeal Roe v Wade, the legal basis for abortion in the United States.
He has vowed to defund Planned Parenthood, placing financial barriers in the way of low-income women accessing services. And he shrugs at the idea of forcing women living in areas of restricted services to travel to another state to access abortion care.
This is ‘pro-life’ policy in its most misogynistic form, and each proposal was rightly met with condemnation across the globe. Yet Trump’s rhetoric is already the reality for women in Northern Ireland.
The 1967 Abortion Act, which legalised abortion in England, Scotland, and Wales, was never extended to Northern Ireland. Anti-choice members of the Northern Ireland Assembly (MLAs) don’t have to worry about repealing a law that is the equivalent of Roe v Wade – there isn’t one.
Punishment for abortion is not just a proposal – it’s happening right now. Women are on trial, and one was convicted last year for ending a pregnancy using abortion medication she purchased online. Just last week, a woman, who was described by her lawyers as at risk of suicide, received a police caution – and a criminal record – for using abortion pills.
And every day women from Northern Ireland are forced to travel to another country for abortion care. Despite being women resident in the UK, paying UK taxes, they are not even entitled to NHS-funded abortion care, and must raise money to pay for the treatment themselves.
“A third of people polled were not aware that women in Northern Ireland are denied the same abortion rights that they are, rising to nearly half of those aged under 35.”
We know the situation is getting worse. Prosecutions are on the rise, and consequently doctors who would previously have provided terminations in the very limited circumstance permitted under Northern Ireland’s strict abortion law are scared to, for fear that they themselves will end up criminalised.
The recent collapse of the NI government means that the small steps forward it appeared politicians in Northern Ireland were willing to take to enable access to abortion in cases of severe foetal anomaly – cases where the baby would not survive the pregnancy – have been halted.
Legislation in progress has been ceased. Bills had been tabled, they had advanced. Now we are back to square one, with a period of significant uncertainly ahead of us.
Pro-choice politicians could lose their seats in the forthcoming elections, and the months of negotiations that may result from any outcome will only push any potential for progress further down the line.
Sadly, many people just aren’t aware of this desperate situation on our own doorstep. At bpas (British Pregnancy Advisory Service), we recently polled 2,000 GB residents and found that more than a third of people were not aware that women in Northern Ireland are denied the same abortion rights that they are, rising to nearly half of those aged under 35.
This isn’t good enough. To press politicians to act, we need to bring people with us, which is why we have launched a new campaign to raise awareness of the current situation in Northern Ireland, and get involved in advocating for change.
We were proud to take part in the Women’s March on London this Saturday. We marched side-by-side, although miles apart, with women in the US who are preparing to defend their abortion rights. But we must not forget that these are rights that have yet to even be granted to our sisters in Northern Ireland. Let’s show solidarity – and support – for both.2988 Views
Katherine O’Brien is media and public policy manager at the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (bpas), a not-for-profit charity which advocates for women’s reproductive choice and provides services across the UK.