‘This could be the most dramatic step forward for women’s rights in Northern Ireland in generations – but it is precarious’

Demonstrators chaining themselves to Department of Health to ensure extension of Abortion Rights to Northern Ireland (feministfightback.org.uk)

Northern Ireland women’s rights have suddenly become a major political issue, after being ignored or misunderstood by many people in the rest of the UK for years. In light of the DUP-Conservative partnership, many people are waking up to the harsh realities of life for women in Northern Ireland, where having an abortion is a criminal offence in almost all circumstances – writes Barbara Davidson.

Northern Ireland’s abortion laws have recently been hotly debated everywhere from the House of Commons to news bulletins across the country. But behind the dramatic debates, two women from Northern Ireland are at the centre of the fight for reproductive rights in the region.

They are an anonymous and courageous mother and daughter, known only as ‘A and B’ due to essential protection provided to them by the Supreme Court. They hold the vital key to securing the biggest step forward for women’s rights in Northern Ireland in generations. They urgently need your donations to help them bring their case to Strasbourg.

There’s been a lot about abortion in the news lately. There’s also been a lot about Northern Ireland. One of these topics making national headlines is unusual enough but both together is almost unheard of. The Conservative party’s decision to strike a deal with Northern Ireland’s largest political party, the DUP, so it could stay in government after the 8 June election has shone a spotlight on the state of Northern Ireland women’s rights. The political moves from Westminster have been unexpected, fast and dramatic. Only weeks after the election deal, the UK government announced for the first time ever that it would fund abortions in England for women from Northern Ireland.

The upshot of this is that we are now on the cusp of what could be the most dramatic step forward for women’s rights in Northern Ireland in generations. But it is a precarious deal, made by a weak government to secure its own political purposes. The announcement came hours before a crunch vote in the House of Commons on an amendment to the Queen’s Speech, proposed by Labour MP Stella Creasy MP which had cross-party support from 105 MPs. The government knew it would lose the vote and so quickly introduced this new policy.

Before 29 June, there was no sign of any British government, of any political persuasion, pledging to help Northern Ireland women by allowing them access to free abortions. The rights of Northern Ireland women should not be dependent on the whim of a government of the day, acting because losing a vote doesn’t seem very ‘strong and stable’.

This government promise needs the certainty of the law to back it up.  A far cry from the drama of Westminster high politics is a little-known legal case, brought by two women known only as ‘A and B’, fighting for five years against the odds, that holds the key to securing the deal for hundreds of women. One snag: they urgently need your help. Women living in other parts of the UK must now stand in solidarity with their Northern Ireland sisters.

In Northern Ireland, abortion is virtually illegal. Women who have abortion and the medical practitioners who perform them can face up to life in prison. The Abortion Act 1967, which is the law that makes it possible for women elsewhere in the UK to get abortions, does not apply there.

This means that the only option for women in Northern Ireland is to travel, usually to England. Not only do women suffer the mental and emotional stress of having to leave home for what might be a difficult experience, they also have to pay the cost of the procedure, which might be anything between £600 and £2,000, depending on how far the pregnancy is advanced. Add to that the cost of a ferry or flight, transport to the clinic, and a hotel, childcare, loss of income – and possibly the cost of a parent, partner or friend joining for support – and the total amount can be at least £800 and sometimes more than £2,500.

These are huge sums for any woman to find at short notice, but for low income women the impact can be devastating. What do women do if they cannot afford it? Some go ahead with an unwanted pregnancy, some take matters into their own hands by taking dangerous steps to try to force a miscarriage. Does all this sound a bit Victorian? Out-of-step with a modern, progressive democracy? This is the grim reality for women living in this far-flung corner of the UK.

Long before the government appeared to wake up to it on 29 June, this state of affairs was challenged in the courts by A and B.

In 2012, A, aged only 15, had to make the lonely, distressing journey to England with her mother, B, to have an abortion that she was unable to have in Northern Ireland. She was barred from accessing NHS abortion services in England and her only option was to pay for her abortion in a private clinic. The experience was deeply traumatic for A, and was made worse by the stress of B having to raise nearly £1000 as they had limited income.

A and B have fought selflessly for five years to try to ensure that women from Northern Ireland should not have to suffer such devastating experiences. They now want to take their case all the way to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg to get compensation and to obtain the fundamental right of all women and girls from Northern Ireland not to be discriminated against in obtaining abortions in England.

They also want to ensure that any policy arising from the recent panic political concession will be made clear to protect low income women like them.

A and B are seeking crowdfunding for their case from the wider community. They urgently need donations by 26 July to help them get to Strasbourg. Their case is important because the rights of women and girls in Northern Ireland have been continually ignored by the British government for decades and only now has the policy pledge been secured as the Conservatives sought to keep their minority government.

Women and girls living in Northern Ireland deserve better than being an afterthought or a political pawn to keep a party in power. They deserve concrete legal rights and guarantees. The government’s concession could be reversed or revised based on the whims of the government of the day but a successful case for A and B would change that and give women and girls in Northern Ireland real and long-lasting justice. All UK citizens who care about women’s rights must now pledge to help their Northern Ireland sisters.

Please donate what you can to the A and B case by clicking on this link.

You can find out about the work of the London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign here.

Watch our video here (Actress: Hannah Osborne, Director: Eoin O’Neill, Writer: Alan Flanagan)

This article first appeared  on Huffington Post here. It was published on the Justice Gap on July 25, 2017

Author: Barbara Davidson

Barbara is a former solicitor and a member of the London-Irish Abortion Rights campaign

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