30 JULY 2017

Upon exiting the doors of Central Station in Belfast City Centre you enter into the heart of the city, into a bustling, vibrant tourist hub. With countless seas of international tourists, buses offering tours around the historic sites and streets upon streets of bars and eateries, Belfast is a weekend break-goers dream.

Facing the station, a building that acts as a doorway to the rest of the world, is a semi-permanent protest stand adorned with placards. The protest stand is pitched outside the hidden Marie Stopes clinic, and the only one of its kind in Northern Ireland. The placards feature horrific and graphic imagery of aborted foetuses as well as biblical quotes and messages condemning anyone attending the clinic. The pro-life campaigners, almost exclusively female, stand in the street year round confronting anyone attending the clinic, often with terrifying consequences. The protestors have been known to publicly sprinkle holy water on attendees as well as intimidating patients by threatening them with legal action. It’s a paradoxical and bewildering sight for foreigners in a city so well-known for its hospitality and spirit.

The part time Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast is the only charity which provides the abortion pill(s) in Northern Ireland. This is of course, subject to a very strict and rigorous assessment process, as the abortion law in Northern Ireland only permits abortions under extreme medical circumstances when a woman's life is at risk or there is a permanent or serious risk to her mental or physical health. This means that instances of fatal foetal abnormalities, rape and incest are not legal reasons for a woman in Northern Ireland to access an abortion. In these cases and any others deemed as illegitimate reasons for termination, Marie Stopes can only offer women help and guidance in getting to one of their clinics based on the UK mainland. Sadly, this is often not an option for many of the women and girls attending the clinic due to the financial implications of both the travel to England and what had been the astronomical cost of a private abortion upon arrival. (Women from NI were required by law to pay for this service on the NHS until the 30th June 2017.)

The future of abortion rights in Northern Ireland

There has been a substantial amount of recent media coverage on the issues surrounding outdated human rights laws in Northern Ireland as a result of the partnership between the Conservative Party and the DUP or Democratic Unionist Party, the leading political party in Northern Ireland.

The DUP have been robust in their anti-abortion rhetoric since forming in 1971 and have vetoed any progressive changes to the law with vigour. Arlene Foster, leader of the DUP and First Minister of Northern Ireland until the collapse of the power sharing executive in January 2017, said in an interview with The Guardian in 2016 “I would not want abortion to be as freely available here as it is in England and don’t support the extension of the 1967 act.” Foster has spoken out against any changes in the Northern Irish assembly on a number of occasions. So what does the partnership and the recent changes to the surrounding issue mean for women in Northern Ireland?

Whilst the changes, which now allow women from NI to receive access to free abortions via NHS England (should they be able to make the journey overseas), are welcomed by pro-choice activists, it is understandable that many people have been left feeling apprehensive about how the remaining situation within Northern Ireland may develop going forward. Until an announcement by Justine Greening, Minister for Women and Equalities on 29th June 2017, many women travelling from NI to seek an abortion in England would never have been able to afford the fees of the treatment on top of travel, accommodation and time off work. The costs of private abortions typically range from £500 for the abortion (which can be taken up to nine weeks into a pregnancy) to about £800 for abortions up to 18 weeks; for abortions after 18 weeks a patient can expect to pay up to £2000.

With these financial demands in mind, there is no denying that the changes help lessen the burden of women seeking a termination in NI. However there are many other complex issues at hand within this framework of perceived reform and what many activists now fear is that these changes - changes which many argue have simply been put in place to distract from the bigoted agenda of the DUP by an anxious Conservative party – will encourage a complacency to develop around the issue.

End the suffering and trauma now

We must remember that it is still illegal for women to access abortion in NI. It is still the case that any woman in need of an abortion as a result of rape or incest must travel overseas, often alone, to seek what can be a majorly intrusive procedure. They must embark upon this terrifying and isolating experience only to return home where they can expect to receive no access to what is often necessary counselling or appropriate mental health care, and only limited support at the hands of a small number of dedicated volunteer services.

The disparity in the fundamental human rights granted to women in Northern Ireland, compared to those paying the same tax and contributing to the same society just a 40 min flight away are still grossly unjust. When we think of breaches in human rights relating to gender inequality, we so often look abroad for examples of injustice, and yet only last year, a 19 year old female student was given a suspended sentence after her house mates reported her to the police for obtaining abortion pills online, after she had failed to raise sufficient funds for the trip to England within the narrow timeline during which a termination can be carried out. Now, with a criminal record for seeking a basic human right, the course of her professional and personal life will be altered forever; not to mention the emotional anguish and trauma from such an experience.

We must end the suffering and condemnation of women whose lives are destroyed simply for seeking a termination. We must continue engaging, campaigning and raising awareness of the plight of vulnerable women across Northern Ireland. How else can we expect our government, a perceived beacon of liberal democracy which so often offers support to those most disadvantaged in society around the globe, to fulfill its duty when we can’t even offer our own citizens the basic human rights they deserve?

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The Fawcett Society launched #Resist, a social media campaign that coincided with the airing of the final episode of The Handmaid's Tale in the UK. The campaign aimed to show how many of the injustices depicted in the series and book have already, or currently are, happening in the UK. This included issues such as Female Genital Mutilation, forced marriage, and abortion laws in Northern Ireland.

See all the #Resist infographics here

About author

Gemma McSherry, journalistGemma is a freelance journalist based between Leeds and Belfast. She works as a features writer for Belfast based arts and culture publication CultureHUB Magazine.