#YouKnowMe: Women Are Tweeting Their Abortion Stories, But Something's Amiss

Photographed by Serena Brown
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.
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"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.
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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