it’s 2016 and a woman was sentenced for having an abortion in the uk
A 150-years-old law forces Northern Irish women to travel overseas or seek out dangerous illegal abortions. If they’re reported, the can face a lifetime in prison.
Pro-choice protesters in Dublin. Image via Wikipedia.
On Monday a Belfast High Court found an unnamed 21-year-old woman guilty of having an abortion. She received a three-month sentence that was suspended for two years. Her barrister pointed out that she would "not have found herself before the courts" if she had lived anywhere else in the UK. Northern Ireland remains the only region in the UK where abortion is illegal due to a dusty piece of 150-years-old legality that was passed under Queen Victoria and has remained untouched.
Her situation mirrors the experience of many young Irish woman who are unable to navigate the countries difficult and expensive legal termination quagmire. It's assumed that most women who experience unwanted pregnancies will travel to England for a termination. Falling pregnant at 19, the sentenced woman just couldn't raise enough money to make the trip.
The court heard she told her housemates that she tried to go to England, but couldn't finance the travel and procedure. With no other options for a safe and legal procedure she spoke to a clinic about her options. There she found out about mifepristone and misoprostol, two drugs that would induce a miscarriage. Buying the pills online, she carried out her own illegal home abortion. Her defence barrister explained his young client felt "isolated and trapped … with no one to turn to" and resorted to "desperate measures". Later, the housemate found evidence of the act and reported her to the police.
In Northern Ireland abortion is classified as a criminal offence, and carries a maximum sentence of life in prison. Exceptions are not made in situations where a woman was raped or the fetus is deemed to be unable to survive past birth.
This case has highlighted a major issue for pregnant, vulnerable women in the UK. As mentioned, it's assumed that Northern Irish women can simply travel to England for a termination. But as this case demonstrates, thousands of women are financially unable to—positioning access to women's health support as a privilege not a right.
In recent years there have been calls for British politicians to be more vocal on the lack of abortion access in Northern Island, but most are unwilling to get involved. The issue is highly loaded in the predominantly Catholic country.
Speaking to The Guardian, The British Pregnancy Advisory Service commented that this woman "is a victim of Northern Ireland's draconian abortion laws and the refusal of politicians to act to protect the health of their constituents." They called for "all politicians to repeal these antiquated, Victorian laws and create an abortion framework fit for women in 2016. We deserve nothing less." We couldn't have put it better ourselves.