The Long Road Ahead For Abortion & Same-Sex Marriage In Northern Ireland

Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto/Getty Images
Last year, when the results of Ireland’s big referenda on same-sex marriage and abortion rights came, people knew what was coming. There had been a build up, and they were ready to celebrate (or commiserate) surrounded by those they had campaigned alongside for decades.
By contrast, last night in Northern Ireland, after MPs in Westminster surprised us all by actually voting in favour of liberalising abortion and extending same-sex marriage to us if our executive – Stormont – isn’t sitting by 21st October (ICYMI they’ve been on hiatus since January 2017), festivities were a bit more last minute.
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We had hoped for this result but we weren't taking anything for granted. Just a year ago, Westminster was reluctant to be debating abortion and gay rights in Northern Ireland at all, even though we were in limbo with an extended period of no government. They didn’t want to touch it despite the fact that the UN had deemed our abortion law a violation of women’s human rights.
Then, the Brexit shambles further highlighted the fault lines in the United Kingdom and Westminster’s understanding of NI. So, the impact of yesterday’s monumental votes cannot be underestimated.
At Alliance for Choice, we’ve organised protests and marches. We’ve written letters, emails, plays and songs. We’ve politely asked to be treated as though we are "as British as Finchley", as Margaret Thatcher said, and we’ve shouted "Fuck the DUP".
I am the group’s stall co-ordinator, you’ll find me standing in the centre of Belfast every weekend. "Penny Post" was a letter-writing campaign in which we asked members of the public to write physical letters to the Minister for Women and Equalities, Penny Mordaunt, calling on the government to act in line with the UN’s report, many of these included people’s personal brushes with the law.
If you live in Northern Ireland you know someone who has been forced to travel or illegally buy abortion pills online. It’s just a fact of life here, even though women in the rest of the UK are not subjected to the same pernicious rules.
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So, for me and other Alliance for Choice campaigners, who have stood on the streets imploring people to write letters, it is almost difficult to put into words how it felt to see Penny and many of her Tory peers finally do what we have been asking for.
There’s been a lot of debate about whether it is right for Westminster to intervene, about whether it breaches devolution (which means that Northern Ireland is able to govern itself). People have asked "Why not a referendum?" but they’re missing the point. We have been telling our abortion stories for too long already – why should women have to go door to door, retelling those stories in order to get rights that women elsewhere in the UK can take for granted?
A panel from the Women and Equalities Committee has already heard from the Chief Medical Officer in Northern Ireland, Michael McBride, that GPs don’t know what they can tell people. This has led to confusion and misinformation. They also heard from Dawn Purvis, ex-Director of Marie Stopes about the 12-year-old who had to travel with a police escort to England to access an abortion.
What more do people need to know? These are the cruelties that we want to see end and, hopefully, this time next year those will be historical stories warning of where we never want to return.
Those saying it should be up to the Assembly in Northern Ireland are often using devolution as a smokescreen for anti-choice views. And the last time Stormont voted on same-sex marriage, it won by a slim majority. It never became law because the DUP blocked it using a mechanism called 'the petition of concern'.
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Symbolically, the day Stella Creasy secured funding for travel and NHS abortion procedures for Northern Irish women in 2017 was the same day a case at Britain’s Supreme Court was rejected on a technical issue even though the majority of judges agreed that our laws were a breach of human rights.
As things stand, because the 1967 Abortion Act does not extend to Northern Ireland, our abortion laws are harsher than Alabama’s. They mean that women who have abortions can, in theory, face life in prison. They have seen people face criminal charges and created a climate of fear for women, pregnant people, activists and medical staff. In November, there is a mother who is being brought to court for having given her then 15-year-old daughter abortion pills.
We haven’t got time to wait, nor do we want more people to have to go through the torture of reliving their human rights abuses in court. So it’s right that the British parliament has acted, as it should have done long ago…
We are thrilled with last night’s vote. We are glad that we were listened to. Our group chats are now hopefully alight with "I’ll see you in the pub" and "big party October 22".
But we won’t be satisfied until it is implemented. If there were a general election, for instance, it could be postponed.
We will only rest when people no longer travel for healthcare. We will only be happy when there are free, safe, legal, local abortions and buffer zones for those entering. That’s all we really want.
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