Whilst Polish demonstrators continue to protest for abortion rights, one country on the other side of Europe is still adjusting to their new freedoms. Before October 2019, abortion in Northern Ireland was almost totally prohibited, even in the case of rape and incest. The country had one of the strictest abortion laws in Europe, based on an 1861 act, resulting in prosecution and even jail for anyone undergoing a termination. One year later and the laws have changed; abortion is permitted under any circumstance for people 0-12 weeks pregnant and up to 24 weeks if there is a serious risk of harm to the person. However the fight has not been easy. Alliance for Choice activist Catherine Isobel* tells us how activists, health workers and campaigners fought for their rights and how there is still much more work to be done.
*Not actual name for privacy reasons
1. Why were Victorian era laws still in place until 2019; were they favourable towards a particular social or political group?
I moved to Derry from England in 2018, so my answers are from an English perspective. The 1967 Act in England enacted the legal provision of abortion, but Northern Ireland wasn’t part of that legislation. Not extending the 1967 Act was favourable to the church and the patriarchy, and given that Northern Ireland was a sectarianised state with the marginalised Catholic population under thrall of the church, the reasons for lack of extension are clear.
Abortions happened through self-harm, but by and large women were forced to travel to Great Britain for healthcare. It wasn't until the late 1990s when abortion pills became available that women became able to self-administer healthcare. But even then, you could be arrested if you sought aftercare and were suspected of an abortion. This meant that wealthier people could have an easier time accessing an abortion, as they would have the means to travel.
2. What was the greatest challenge for pro-choice activists and campaigners and how did you eventually succeed?
Keeping up the campaign’s momentum over the decades was a challenge that my fellow activists talk about, and the frustrations of political gridlock and reluctance to make any change. Despite studies showing wide support for abortion access, some of the main political parties are still too timid to actively support personal choice; such as the SDLP (Social Democrat and Labour Party) who leave it up to their individual MLAs (Members of the Legislative Assembly) to decide their stance and still define themselves as a 'pro-life' party – ironic as they won’t afford women and pregnant people that same choice over their own bodies.
Until 2019, Westminster eschewed their responsibility to ensure CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women) compliance, and the lack of political will from the NI Executive to provide services is shown by Health Minister Robin Swann's (UUP-Ulster Unionist Party) avoidance of this issue even during a pandemic. We succeeded in decriminalising abortion due to a strange confluence of events, one being our lack of Executive, which meant Labour MP Stella Creasey tacked a crucial motion onto a wider bill about Northern Ireland that would lead to the decriminalisation on 21 October 2019.
To ensure the bill passed, we pursued an extremely vocal, visible and relentless campaign and called people in England, Scotland and Wales to support us and write to their MPs. It was vital that we showed the mainstream support especially since Sinn Féin (left-wing, republican political party supporting the unification of Ireland), who do not take their seats in the House of Commons, wouldn’t demonstrate the voices of those here, so the only voices heard were those of the anti-choice party the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party: right-wing, unionist political party supporting the union with Great Britain).
3. What were the factors behind the pro-choice/ anti-abortion dichotomy; was it a class, political, religious or generational divide?
Working with Alliance 4 Choice, I have had the privilege to campaign alongside incredible women from all walks of life. Some were campaigning back in the 1960s and others were born this millennium; our older activists worked with activists that came before them. NI is drawn as having only Catholics and Protestants, but there are those that are both and neither. Our activists draw from every background, as abortion is a necessary healthcare and doesn’t care what school you went to [in Northern Ireland, the religious divide extends to schools]. I remember at one point, a leading Unionist politician saying that Unionists aren’t pro-choice, which immediately set off the hashtag #unionistsforchoice!
4. Was there a particular event that caused a shift in the attitudes towards abortion?
Weirdly Alabama's restrictive abortion bill and the huge impact that had in England. We made a lot of noise pointing out that such a backwards step wasn’t just taking place in the USA, but also right here. Our meeting after the Alabama outrage ignited a whole new generation of activists. Other key events included the tragic and very unnecessary death of Savita Halappanavar in Galway in 2012 that could have been prevented through an abortion, and the 2018 Vote for Yes in the Republic of Ireland finally decriminalised abortion and showed that change was possible. Activists from the North worked relentlessly in solidarity with the South and we appreciated the support we received in return to make sure no one on the island of Ireland was left behind. Also the prosecution of a mother for procuring pills for her daughter in 2018 - tried under 1861 Act; and in 2016, a student in Belfast was prosecuted and received a criminal record under 1861 Act for using abortion pills.
5. What has been the fallout from the decriminalisation and has it caused a wider divide in society?
In my experience there has not be a wider divide. Stigma is being reduced and there is a wider acceptance. When we were out campaigning with stalls, I was called a murderer by only one in ten, fewer even? Overwhelmingly, people would make a beeline to demonstrably show their support, congratulating us for campaigning, signing petitions, wearing badges and more. We produced DECRIMINALISE T-shirts to raise money and we still can’t quite believe how many we sold. People wanted to show their support in their droves: musicians, Sister Michael from the TV show Derry Girls (our honorary A4C member Siobhan McSweeney) and people from all over Ireland, the diaspora and supporters abroad.
A crucial ‘fallout’ is that with the 600+ abortions that took place this year, people weren’t fearful of prosecution and could tell the truth to their doctors if they needed care. Anti-choice people continue to be vocal but they are a minority and arguably have lost some of the hold as there is no legal threat anymore.
6. On a broader level, how have the attitudes in Northern Ireland changed?
From my perspective, I have seen the stigma of abortion starting to ebb away in the short time I have been here. I saw more and more people publicly showing their support when the campaign showed that real change was possible. I come from England where abortion isn’t a particularly big deal; it’s not something anyone takes lightly, but everyone knows it’s an option for whatever reason. That is on its way, along with an outcry for overall better sex education from schools and general access and de-stigmatisation of contraception and reproductive healthcare.
7. Leading political parties, like the DUP, appear to be resistant to the change; are there still major challenges to overcome?
Yes, we need access! At the start of the pandemic, abortion was not included in the emergency healthcare plans, which meant if anyone needed an abortion they had to catch a freight ferry to Liverpool. After an intense fortnight of campaigning, the NI Health Department rescinded, but did nothing to provide care, leaving abortion access up to conscientiously committed medics working out of hours. Even so, anyone over 10 weeks still has to travel and despite having a legal requirement to commission services, our Health Minister Robin Swann has failed his duty of care and now the scant services are struggling to continue.
Additionally, there are anti-choice organisations that are hindering pregnant people’s access to abortion. They pretend they are there to provide advice and assistance for all options, but in reality they have delayed pregnant people’s access to abortion to the point where pills are no longer an option and cause a great deal of distress. Attitude surveys by Amnesty International (2018) and the NI Life & Times (2016, 2018) show abortion is wanted but the political parties are still reluctant to change their views.
8. In Poland, pro-choice protests have erupted in retaliation to the government’s proposed anti-abortion laws; do you recognise a similar struggle to your own and how can Northern Irish activists support them?
We have been so impressed with the scale of the protests. We have been sharing information across our networks, standing in solidarity across social media and donating to funds to help support the campaigns. We stand with all of our fellow activists across Europe: Malta, Gibraltar, Poland and across the globe, as bodily autonomy is a right.
9. Poland has shown that even EU countries can slide back into archaic laws; do you see regressive policies, like anti-abortion, becoming more mainstream in Europe?
Sadly yes, although the scale of the pushback in Poland will, I hope, show that it is not something governments will want to do. In England, abortion is still under criminal law and the date of late-term abortions is at risk of being questioned and potentially reduced despite the evidence that shows late-term abortions are rare and generally only happen when there is a medical necessity. Across most of Europe the ultra-conservative parties have been more and more prominent, so we need to make sure we continue to campaign and ensure that everyone receives great education and protects their rights over their own bodies.
10. Who else should we be following for the latest news on Northern Ireland’s pro-choice movement?
For starters Alliance for Choice, including the Derry group, as well as Doctors for Choice, the new University Pro Choice groups at Ulster University and also artists including Shannon Patterson and Elly Makes.
Big thanks to my friend and fellow A4C Derry Activist for fact-checking!