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What It’s Like to Live Under an Abortion Ban

Northern Irish women are still restricted by legislation crafted in 1861.

A pro-choice demonstration in Belfast (Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

The passage of last week’s highly restrictive bill banning almost all abortions in Alabama sparked strong reactions in the United States. It also, however, resonated abroad, and particularly in the United Kingdom, where at least one population is intimately familiar with the experience of living under such a restrictive law.

Abortion is illegal in Northern Ireland, where the 1967 Abortion Act, which legalized abortion in specific circumstances for most women in the U.K., does not apply. Instead, the law governing Northern Irish abortions is the Offenses Against the Person Act, dating back to 1861. The maximum sentence under this law for “procuring a miscarriage” or being an accessory to one is life imprisonment. While this sentence has not been passed in quite some time, the prosecution of women for seeking an abortion continues. “The seemingly global condemnation of Alabama’s recent abortion ban has shed light on the situation that continues for women and pregnant people in Northern Ireland,” Mara Clarke, co-founder of the Abortion Support Network, providing assistance to Northern Irish women forced to travel for abortion care, told me.

Two other holdouts in the region have liberalized their abortion laws in recent years. In 2018, the Republic of Ireland legalized abortion in a nation-wide referendum. Abortion will also become legal in the Isle of Man, a U.K. crown dependency, later this month, when its Abortion Reform Bill takes effect, replacing a law which only permitted abortion in the case of rape or mental health concerns. The new law not only allows abortion in all cases up to 14 weeks, but allows them under certain conditions thereafter, and establishes “buffer zones” outside clinics to prevent protesters from harassing women.

Northern Irish law is actually more severe than the recently passed Alabama legislation, and does not include exceptions for rape or incest. In 2013, Sarah Ewart was forced to travel from Northern Ireland to England for an abortion even though her unborn child had a fatal skull anomaly: As there was no risk to her own life, she was told that she would have to continue with the pregnancy until she had a miscarriage. (She is now challenging the current legislation in the High Court in Belfast.)

And unlike Alabama, where only doctors can be prosecuted for providing abortions, in Northern Ireland both doctors and women can face prosecution if an abortion takes place. In March 2017, on International Women’s Day, police in Belfast carried out a number of raids searching homes and workplaces for abortion pills while many activists were attending a pro-choice rally. In a separate case, a mother who bought Mifepristone and Misoprostol (tablets used for medical abortions) online for her daughter in 2013 was charged last fall under the Offenses Against the Person Act, and could face up to 10 years in prison if the prosecution is allowed to proceed.

As in the U.S., the U.K. has debated to what extent travel outside Northern Ireland mitigates the effects of such a severe law. In 2017, 919 women from Northern Ireland travelled to England or Wales to have an abortion according to statistics from the U.K. Department of Health. The number of Northern Irish women in total who travelled to get an abortion between 1980 and 2016 was estimated to be around 168,000. In June 2017, British members of Parliament voted for the National Health Service in England and Wales to allow free abortions to Northern Irish women, and even also pay for travel costs for women who earned less than £15,300 a year. But campaigners have argued that this concession still only helps women who can afford the overall cost of the trip including accommodation, creating a two-tier society between women with means and women without. Thanks to the 2018 referendum in the Republic of Ireland, Northern Irish women are now able to travel to their southern neighbor for an abortion, but still have to pay at least €400 for the service, in addition to travel costs.

The Northern Irish experience may be a wake-up call for Americans who think travel will mitigate the effects of Alabama’s legislation. “The sweep-it-under-the-rug solution of saying women can simply ‘travel to England’ completely ignores not only the people who are most vulnerable—those with violent or controlling partners, those who have caring responsibilities, those who cannot take time off work without losing pay—as well as overlooks the lunacy of forcing citizens from one part of the United Kingdom to turn what should be a five-minute outpatient medical procedure and turning it into a 12-to-18-hour trip to another jurisdiction,” Clarke told me.

Changing the law is politically fraught. Northern Ireland has been without a government for over two years since the Democratic Unionist Party and Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein have been unable to reach an agreement about power sharing. That throws the problem to the British government in Westminster, where current Prime Minister Theresa May relies on the support of the strongly anti-abortion DUP to support her minority government. 

After news of the Alabama bill broke, Alliance for Choice, a group campaigning for abortion rights in Northern Ireland wrote a letter to Alabama in solidarity, detailing the struggle Northern Irish women have faced. “You and the people you help might actually get arrested, you might have your homes searched and your workplaces raided,” they wrote. “Maybe a GP will inform the police of your illegal behaviour…  either way you really have to know who you can trust with the information about your medical procedure, if you access pills at home because you cannot travel.” (A 21-year-old Belfast woman in 2016 received a one-year suspended sentence for trying to procure her own abortion. She was told that her flatmates had reported her.)

Emma Campbell, Alliance co-chair, says that they are tired of waiting for change. “The U.K. government know the law needs changing, they have the power, ability and majority will in parliament to do so, but the DUP are purposefully using our bodies as one of the bargaining chips with the Conservatives over Brexit.” she told me. “We already know a 12-year-old travelled last year [to get an abortion]. That should have been the last straw.”

As in the U.S., public opinion in Northern Ireland does not line up with such restrictive policies. 81 percent of respondents in a Northern Ireland Life and Times survey in 2016 said they believed abortion should be legal if the fetus has a fatal abnormality, and 78 percent said they believe abortion should be legal if a woman becomes pregnant because of rape or incest. 

The outcome of the bill passed in Alabama last week has yet to be seen. But just as it has galvanized American leftists, a similar response has been evident across the water, where a 150-year-old legislation offers a taste of what may transpire if the Alabama bill stands up to court challenges.