The Irish referendum to repeal the 8th amendment was a momentous day for abortion politics. Two thirds of Irish voters rejected the idea that a developing foetus had an equal right to life as the pregnant women, thereby sending out a clear signal to their government that the country would no longer tolerate the ban on abortion and the discrimination against pregnant women more generally. Many people believe that the tragic and unnecessary death of Savita Halappanavar added momentum to the campaign. Halappanavar was 31 years old when she died from sepsis developed during a miscarriage, her family reported that she was denied an abortion because there was still a foetal heartbeat. This tragic event, and the accounts of women forced to travel overseas to access an abortion, made it clear that rather than a foetus having an equal right to life, women’s lives were in fact a secondary consideration and this situation could no longer be tolerated.
Women’s stories were a central part of the campaign. The varied accounts of why abortion was necessary for them at that time, and the lengths that they had to go to obtain one illustrated the importance of abortion to women. The diverse and everyday nature of these accounts, coupled with the overwhelmingly positive result in the referendum have contributed to the growing normalisation of abortion. This process of normalisation positions abortion not as a shameful procedure but as an essential aspect of healthcare which women should be able to access if and when they need it. As such, abortion needs to be safe, legal, local, and accessible within public healthcare systems.
The Irish constitutional ban on abortion meant that the whole population needed to vote on the issue. This unique situation means that globally, politicians will be taking notice of the Irish referendum result, not least those in the UK. Abortion is still a crime across the UK, and the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act (England, Wales and Northern Ireland) sets the penalty as life imprisonment for women and anyone who helps them get an abortion. The 1967 Abortion Act provided exceptions, so abortions that met certain conditions would not be unlawful, but this did not, and still does not apply to Northern Ireland. As a result, it is still virtually impossible to get an abortion in Northern Ireland and women are forced to either travel to the mainland or buy abortion pills online and risk prosecution. This legal position contributes to abortion stigma and acts as a chilling environment for health professionals who work in the shadow of prosecution, even if they are providing good clinical care.
There has been a long campaign to legislate so women in Northern Ireland can access abortion, and the Irish referendum result has intensified public attention on this matter. Abortion is considered to be a devolved issue, so an area of legislation for the Northern Ireland Assembly rather than Westminster. But at the time of writing, there has been no government in Stormont (home to the Northern Ireland Assembly) for 17 months, and there is little sign that the issues which led to its collapsed will be agreed soon. In addition, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) have already said that they would veto legislation which gave access to abortion even if it received a majority vote in the Assembly. This is no idle threat, their ability to block legislation means that the Assembly’s majority vote for equal marriage has never been enacted. Furthermore, those in Westminster who are currently arguing that it is for the Assembly to decide, know full well that this is, by default, a call to continue to prevent abortion services developing in Northern Ireland.
Alongside the problem of access in Northern Ireland is the continued insistence that abortion is a conscience issue, and that therefore any proposed legislation should come from the back benches in Westminster rather than from the government. On the one hand, this has meant abortion has not become the political football that it has in the United States between the Republicans and the Democrats. However, this only leaves behind a current legal framework with Victorian era punishment which continues to be a barrier to good clinical practice. The 1967 Abortion Act which was written for a time prior to the development of the abortion pill, is no longer fit for purpose and the current legal framework institutionalises a form of paternalistic medicine that is now almost universally rejected.
Access to abortion (at least in some circumstances) has been recognised as a human right. The UK government is responsible for human rights, they are not a devolved issue. Consequently, to pass the buck on responsibility for legislation, either to a non-functioning Assembly or to the back-benches of Parliament is unacceptable. There is overwhelming public support for abortion in the UK, over 90% believe it is necessary in some cases, and nearly 70% that it should be women’s choice. It is about time that politicians recognised that abortion provision is a normal part of women’s healthcare
Anti-abortion organisations have resources and connections which have often distorted how little public support they have in the UK. The UK government is responsible for human rights, and has repeatedly been censured for failing to provide abortion in Northern Ireland. Whilst it is the case that historically, abortion legislation has always come from the back-benches, part of the normalisation of abortion requires it to be treated as other aspects of healthcare, and in the light of the evidence from Ireland, abortion decriminalisation across the UK should not have to wait on the lottery of private members bills.
Dr Pam Lowe, Senior Lecturer in Sociology, University of Aston
Featured image by Rebecca Strickson Illustration https://www.instagram.com/rebecca_strickson_illustration/
Photos by Pam Lowe