Thursday 8 May 2014

High Court ruling against free access to abortion for Northern Irish women

Today, a High Court judgement ruled that women from Northern Ireland are not entitled to access abortion free of charge through the NHS in England. 

Abortion is severely restricted in Northern Ireland and is only available where the pregnant woman’s life is in danger or where there is a risk of permanent and serious damage to her physical or mental health. This means that the vast majority of those seeking abortion in Northern Ireland will need to travel to access a safe, legal procedure. Currently, these women are required to pay for the procedure, which can range from approximately £400 to over £1000 for those at a later stage of pregnancy. The test case brought to the High Court by two women was rejected, meaning that the need for Northern Irish women to pay for abortion procedures carried out in England remains.

Northern Ireland is not covered by the current 1967 Abortion Act which applies in England, Scotland and Wales. The key legislation governing abortion in Northern Ireland comes from the Offences against the Person Act 1861. This means that women’s access to reproductive health care is managed according to a law which is over 150 years old and precedes the invention of the telephone and the light bulb.

The restrictive law in Northern Ireland does not prevent Northern Irish women having abortions, but it does make it more difficult. Those who can afford the private clinic fee and travel costs to England will be able to access a safe, legal abortion, but might have to significantly rearrange work and childcare to do so. Others may face delays in their attempts to raise a large sum of money in a short period of time. Overall, abortion is safe, but is safest the earlier in pregnancy it is performed, so delayed access means higher prices and also an increased chance of complications.

Those without access to such funds will be forced to continue an unwanted pregnancy (which again, is likely to have severe financial implications for someone who cannot afford an abortion), or they will resort to an illegal and potentially unsafe method of ending the pregnancy. Abortion Support Network is an organisation which helps women in Ireland and Northern Ireland to afford the cost of an abortion abroad. Mara Clarke, who runs the organisation, details some of the desperate measures people have taken to try to end their pregnancies:

“We have mothers calling us, telling us that their 18-year-old daughter drank a bottle of floor cleaner after she was raped at her own birthday party. We hear about women taking whole packets of birth control and washing it down with vodka.”

Others unable to travel will buy abortion medication online through sites such as Women on Web – however, if they do, they risk life imprisonment for ‘procuring (their) own miscarriage’.

The latest statistics from England and Wales show that in 2012 905 women travelled from Northern Ireland to access abortion. Many more will have travelled elsewhere or bought illegal abortion medication to end their pregnancies. Clearly, strict abortion laws do not stop abortions from happening, but can make them less safe by causing delay and restricting access. Abortion for Northern Irish women is largely a matter of economic resource. As Mara Clarke puts it, “women with money have options, women without money have babies”.

As a young people’s project we're particularly concerned about young women’s access to reproductive healthcare. In 2012, 43% of abortions in England and Wales for Northern Irish residents were for those under 25. Young women are less likely to have the resources necessary to travel and pay for a private abortion. A pregnant teenager seeking an abortion in Northern Ireland may suffer from stigma and lack of support, as well as financial limitations. 

The young woman who presented a test case to the High Court was just 15 when she became pregnant and travelled to Manchester for an abortion. Her mother paid £600 for the procedure, some of which was covered by the Abortion Support Network, and described the process of raising the funds as ‘harrowing’. Not all young women will have the support of their families. We believe that the abortion law in Northern Ireland should be brought into line with the rest of the UK, so that all women, especially young women, are able to access the full range of reproductive healthcare they need, which includes abortion.

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