Women in Northern Ireland must still cross the water to get an abortion, and even setting out the law in an accessible form is controversial. Siún Carden reports
The Abortion Act’s 40th birthday has recently been marked with enormous press coverage about when and to whom abortion should be safely and legally available. Amongst all the fretting about irresponsible women getting themselves knocked up and hoovered out for the sheer, reckless fun of it, there was little or no discussion in the press of the part of the UK where the 1967 Abortion Act has never applied. In Northern Ireland the legal position of abortion is murky and confusing. If you were to ask people in the street in Belfast, you would be told “there’s no abortion here”.
In fact, women are sometimes given abortions here if doctors decide that their life is endangered by the pregnancy, they have severe learning difficulties, or the foetus is abnormal. Occasionally women are also able to get abortions here if they have been raped. These decisions rest with individual doctors, operating in a legal twilight zone. The vast majority of women from Northern Ireland who have an abortion travel across the Irish Sea for the procedure, as do many women from the Republic of Ireland. Since 1967, about 64,000 women from Northern Ireland have had abortions in England or Wales.
If so many women can get abortions elsewhere, why does it matter whether they can have them close to home? The most obvious problem with the current situation is money. Women travelling to the rest of the UK have to pay for private abortions (which start at about £400 from non-profit organizations like Marie Stopes), as well as travel and accommodation costs. This excludes all women who cannot get their hands on several hundred extra quid at short notice. Making a trip away quickly and privately is another problem for many women. This leaves the poor, the young and the vulnerable with no choice at all. A situation where abortion is available only to the wealthy and well-organised should not be acceptable to anyone.