We Never Wanted Your Abortion Laws, They’re Out Of Date

Photo by Wiktor Szymanowicz/Shutterstock.
On 21st October 1879, Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb. And as of 21st October 2019, a very different light will finally be shed on Northern Ireland. An archaic piece of legislation, the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, which predates Mr Edison’s most crucial of inventions, will no longer be used to deny women in this part of the UK access to abortion services, or to threaten them and anyone assisting them in having a termination with life imprisonment.
In 2013, at the age of 41 and living in Belfast, I discovered I was pregnant. After careful consideration of every aspect of my life – my relationship, my previous relationships, my family, my finances, my health, my job and my personhood – I came to the decision that I needed an abortion. 
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I say 'need' because that’s how it was. I didn’t want an abortion. I needed an abortion. I live in Northern Ireland and so set about the isolating and difficult task of ending the pregnancy. I have always been pro choice but until that time, I had no idea of the multitude of barriers that women in Northern Ireland face when trying to exercise what should be their fundamental right to bodily autonomy. I considered ways to access an abortion myself, but with the overbearing stigma coupled with the fear of prosecution (women have been prosecuted for ordering abortion pills online), I decided that travelling to England was my only option. 

I have never regretted my abortion for a single minute, not one. What I do regret is the fact that I was forced to travel in secrecy and shame.

Weeks after navigating an almost underground system with invaluable help from the Family Planning Association (which unfortunately no longer exists), I eventually travelled to Manchester for a termination. The procedure itself was straightforward and the care I received from the staff was friendly and professional.
I have never regretted my abortion for a single minute, not one. What I do regret is the fact that I was forced to travel in secrecy and shame, made to feel like a thing, not a person. A thing that was better kept out of the way and invisible. I felt guilty about the fact that I had an abortion in relatively good circumstances and reflected endlessly on the women who didn’t have a credit card to meet the costs, who didn’t have such a supportive partner and who couldn’t make the trip as I did, for all sorts of reasons. 
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That’s why I became involved in abortion rights and Alliance for Choice. I took courage from the women who began to tell their own stories and took heart from the activists who had been campaigning for abortion rights for so very long. I began to tell my own story, anonymously at first, but now without hesitation because I realised that it’s okay to have an abortion! After all, one in three of us will at some point in our lives.
This is a historic moment but it is hard to believe that women and pregnant people’s bodies in Northern Ireland have been so heavily regulated by such an outdated bit of legislation. The law that governs the UK in respect of abortion, the Abortion Act 1967, was never extended to Northern Ireland and, after years of campaigning, we finally find ourselves in the position of having abortion decriminalised in Northern Ireland because of an amendment tabled by Labour MP Stella Creasy in Westminster. 
That position is rather strange, though. Northern Ireland’s abortion law and provisions could actually now be more progressive than the rest of the UK. The 1967 Act never applied here so, in one move, we will get the legalisation and decriminalisation of abortion, while in England and Wales the 1861 Act will technically still apply.
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The ‘67 Act is often hailed as a groundbreaking piece of legislation and for its time, it most certainly was. It gave doctors permission to perform abortions lawfully, so long as certain conditions were met. These include the legal requirement to have two doctors sign off before a procedure can go ahead and the fact that an abortion can only take place in hospitals or settings specifically licensed by the Secretary of State for Health.
Yet the '67 Act actually keeps women and healthcare professionals at risk of prosecution because it did not repeal or replace sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act.

Northern Ireland's abortion law and provisions could actually now be more progressive than the rest of the UK.

What the 1967 Act failed to do was render abortion a healthcare and not a criminal matter in the UK. As a result, abortion has never been decriminalised. While abortion providers operate legally, for women and pregnant people, abortion still inhabits an ambiguous space. It remains within the framework of criminality and until it is regarded as a healthcare matter once and for all, those seeking abortion will be forced to carry that stigma. 
I was discussing abortion recently with someone who describes themselves as being on "a pro choice journey". When I mentioned that I had met a fellow campaigner who was a gynaecologist and abortion surgeon, they looked incredulous and asked: "What do you mean, a surgeon?" It really struck me at that moment that abortion is far from being understood as the safe medical procedure that it is, carried out every day by trained and qualified healthcare professionals.
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With so much anti-choice rhetoric filling the airwaves, attempting to traumatise women into making a choice other than their own, and with protests outside clinics on the rise, we must make it absolutely clear that abortion is not a crime; it is healthcare. 
Historically, if we look back over the things that were once considered 'criminal', we draw a sharp intake of breath: women having the vote was criminal; same sex relationships were criminal.

I am unbroken. I am unbowed. I am not your sinner. I am not your criminal. I am not ashamed and I don't want anyone else to be.

While stigma continues to surround these issues, manifesting as sexism and homophobia, they have all been decriminalised and it is to society’s shame that they were ever 'crimes' in the first place. If we are to learn anything from history, let’s start with decriminalising bodily autonomy. Then, at least, we can start to unpick the layers of stigma that prevail when it comes to abortion rights and reproductive justice.
21st October 2019 will see abortion finally decriminalised in Northern Ireland and the legislation will no longer regard women and pregnant people who need abortion services as criminals in the first instance.
As abortion rights campaigners, we recognise that the struggle is far from over and there is still some way to go on abortion provision and destigmatisation for all. If Westminster can pass an amendment that is fit for Northern Ireland, it can introduce legislation in the rest of the UK that finally decriminalises abortion in statute and concept.
To those who would have the status quo prevail, I have this to say: I am unbroken. I am unbowed. I am not your sinner. I am not your criminal. I am not ashamed and I don’t want anyone else to be.
Please sign our petition and help us change the law to fix abortion provision once and for all.
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