The worldwide outrage over Alabama passing a law that would make abortion illegal in virtually all circumstances – including in cases of incest and rape – has been palpable, particularly on social media. The law – which was passed by 25 white male Republicans and is the most restrictive in the US – would only permit the procedure in cases where the woman's life is in danger, and make performing an abortion a felony offence carrying 99 years in prison. (That's more jail time than her rapist would face if convicted.)
Several pro-choice hashtags began trending on Twitter on Wednesday – including #WomensRightsAreHumanRights, #AlabamaHatesWomen and #AlabamaAbortionBill – and one, #YouKnowMe, started by the actor Busy Philipps to encourage women to share personal experiences of abortion, continues to go from strength to strength.
"1 in 4 women have had an abortion. Many people think they don't know someone who has, but #youknowme. So let's do this: if you are also the 1 in 4, let's share it and start to end the shame. Use #youknowme and share your truth," Philipps tweeted, echoing the #MeToo movement and garnering close to 7,800 retweets and 40k likes by the time of writing. On Thursday morning, women were still sharing their powerful and at times heartbreaking stories.
My boyfriend at the time said I could either have an abortion or he could beat “it” out of me. I cried the entire time. And months after so hard I would vomit. I count the age with every passing year, But it’s probably the only reason I’m alive today. 1 in 4. #youknowme— Meg (@gingermghn) May 16, 2019
I had a second trimester abortion. Our son never formed an airway. Had he survived birth he would have been brain dead. That wasn’t the life I wanted for him. It was the first true parenting decision I ever made. I am not a monster or a criminal. #youknowme— Dr. Erica Goldblatt Hyatt (@Erica_DSW) May 16, 2019
I was 19, in college, and supporting my alcoholic father and little brother with a shit job. I was on the pill. I was doing everything I was "supposed" to do to pull myself from poverty. I'm now married to the father and we are raising 2 children in a great life #youknowme— Mrs Marmo (@MissMarmo) May 15, 2019
But there was a glaring omission in some British people's irate tweets about the situation in Alabama – the fact that abortion law in one corner of the UK is even more draconian. Women in Northern Ireland are subject to one of the most severe abortion bans in the world – under a law from 1861, it's banned in all circumstances other than when a woman's life is at risk – and women in Northern Ireland also face life imprisonment themselves if they procure an abortion, as well as the medical staff who carry out the procedure.
Northern Ireland's abortion law came under the spotlight last year when the Republic of Ireland voted to legalise abortion in an historic victory for pro-choice campaigners and women in the country, but the issue has largely dropped off the public's radar since.
For anyone horrified by Alabama’s proposed abortion ban, or calling it Gilead. Look closer to home! Northern Ireland does not permit abortions even in cases of rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormality. The ONLY exception is endangerment to a woman’s life.— Helen Lewis (@helenlewis) May 15, 2019
Women in Northern Ireland can only access legal abortion by travelling to the UK, and they face daily fear of being caught breaching the law on home turf. A girl who self-terminated her pregnancy with abortion pills bought online was reported to police by her housemates in 2014; and a Northern Irish woman was prosecuted for obtaining abortion pills for her underage pregnant daughter after being reported to police by a GP.
Grainne Teggart, Amnesty UK’s Northern Ireland campaign manager, urged people to "remember that in the UK we’re no better – women in Northern Ireland are subjected to one of the most severe abortion bans in the world which also carries criminal penalties of up to life imprisonment. It’s shameful that our government is allowing such a violation of reproductive rights to continue to blight the lives of so many.
"The UK government’s silence on the situation in Northern Ireland is putting the UK in the same camp as those US states pushing women’s reproductive health back into the dark ages. We should be leading on this issue, not lagging behind. We call on the government to stop ignoring the cruel reality of our law and urgently legislate for change so that the harm caused is brought to an end."
Women in Northern Ireland, including Derry Girls' Siobhán McSweeney, have been flagging the disparity in many people's anger over the situation in Alabama versus the ongoing battle for women to access basic healthcare right on their doorstep in Northern Ireland.
I've literally just had someone from GB tell me today that she feels it's worse to hear the news about America because they're thinking of rolling back women's rights, rather than having treated women like this for years. Well thanks for that...— Shirley-Anne McMillan (@shirleyannemcm) May 15, 2019
What you can do
It's easy to feel powerless and despairing, but there are concrete ways to help Northern Irish women. Start off by putting pressure on your MP. With a pre-written email and online form, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service's (BPAS) Now for NI campaign makes this process seamless.
Alabama abortion law is utterly appalling. But remember- women in Northern Ireland still have no access to legal abortion care in their own country. We cannot condemn Alabama while women in the UK continue to be denied access.— bpas (@bpas1968) May 15, 2019
Email your MP now #nowforNI👉https://t.co/BUKlebp3kU pic.twitter.com/T4szhk6V9H
I'm hearing from a number of English people saying that their MPs have said there's nothing they can do about NI. Honestly. Sack any politician who ever says 'There's nothing we can do'. It's their JOB to 'do'. They are basically admitting incompetence.— Shirley-Anne McMillan (@shirleyannemcm) May 16, 2019
If they reply saying there's nothing they can do, which many people have already reported happening, remember that it's the job of our elected representatives in Westminster to ensure the country's laws are compliant with human rights (which the UN said in March was not the case for Northern Ireland's abortion law). "Devolution – even when functioning – does not relieve the UK government of their responsibility to uphold human rights in Northern Ireland," said Amnesty International UK's Grainne Teggart.
Donating to charities that provide vital services to women in Northern Ireland is always welcome. There's the Abortion Support Network, which provides financial assistance to those forced to travel for abortion care, and the campaign group Alliance for Choice. Using hashtags including #NowForNI, #TheNorthIsNext and #WeTrustWomen on social media will also amplify the campaign's messaging.