Tuesday 09-02-2016 - 11:54
Jo Gowers, NUS-USI Women's Officer explains why the abortion laws in Northern Ireland are outdated and have no place in today's society to coincide with the BPAS campaign to decriminalise abortion.
Being born, and living in London I spent the first eighteen years of my life assuming that everyone was pro-choice, the choice being whether or not to have children. I took the provision of abortion as a healthcare right for granted, as it had always been available to me, and I assumed that was the case in the rest of the United Kingdom. I was wrong.
One month after I turned eighteen I moved to Belfast, in Northern Ireland for University, I have no doubt in my mind that it was one of the best things that ever happened to me. I will leave Belfast after graduating with the belief, legally speaking at least, it is the worst place in the UK to be a woman. When I moved there I quickly learnt that abortions were hugely restricted in NI. As a Christian I’m unsure if I would ever want an abortion, but I never imagined still living in the UK and it not being available. By the end of first year I had also learnt that by registering to a GP surgery here I lost my right to an abortion from the NHS in England too.
The law surrounding abortion in the UK is a complex thing, no more so than in NI, but put simply the Offences Against the Person Act (1861), states that abortion is a criminal offence. Since then while the law has changed in Britain in 1929 and then again in 1967 the Abortion Act now allows abortions to be provided up to 24 weeks gestation in most circumstances. More so there is no limit if the foetus has a Fatal Foetal Abnormality (FFA) or if the Mother’s life is facing substantial risk. While these changes have happened in Britain, NI has seen one change to abortion law with the 1945 Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland) Act. Only permitting an abortion if there is real, serious and long term or permanent threat to the Mother’s life, and with a maximum of 9 weeks and 4 days gestation. Yet despite this, healthcare professionals find that the lack of guidelines prevent them performing abortions even in cases where it could be legal, for fear of criminal prosecution. Despite the more recent laws, an act created in 1861 still governs that abortion (in certain circumstances) is a criminal offence across the UK, but does this matter? How many would have even heard of this act, which is older than every current MP, MLA, MSP and AM (although sometimes you wouldn’t think it)?
In the last few months two cases have come to light of women in Northern Ireland being arrested for taking and/or providing abortion inducing pills. That means that in the UK, because of an act dating back to 1861, people are facing criminal prosecution for trying to access healthcare that is safe, free and legal, although still limited, just a thirty minute flight away.
Decriminalization is, as far as I’m concerned a vital part of our fight for Women’s liberation, and I think it should be part of yours too. You can help by supporting the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) campaign for decriminalisation , and show support on social media to raise awareness. There are also charities which help fund women who are desperate to access abortions in Ireland but cannot afford to travel over to get one, a process which can cost up to £2000 in total. The reality is abortion happens whether you agree with them or not, so do we want women to have to travel, or worse to harm themselves, rather than being trusted to make their own decisions.
This is why we are calling for the decriminalisation of abortion across the UK, because it is not mine or anyone’s place to determine what a woman should do with her own body. I, the NUS-USI Women’s Campaign and the NUS UK Women’s Campaign trust women to make decisions about their own healthcare and their own bodies. Because we believe that those of all genders and none should be equal in society and their bodies should not be seen as property of the state. Because I stress that I am not a vessel, that it is my body my rights and that a woman who knows she does not want to continue a pregnancy is not a criminal.