On Monday, the 30th of November, the High Court of Northern Ireland released a muchdiscussed and celebrated judgement on the current abortion law in Northern Ireland. The decision by Justice Horner was applauded by Amnesty International and the Northern Irish Human Rights Commission. But what does the decision actually mean for pregnant people in Northern Ireland and how much will it actually change their experiences?
British residents are often shocked at the reminder that the 1967 Abortion Act currently does not extend to Northern Ireland. Instead, abortion in Northern Ireland is only available to women whose lives would be threatened by a pregnancy. For further confusion, the exact definition of a life-threatening situation remains unclear – the current Northern Irish government refuses to publicly release the guidelines as to when an abortion may be accessed. The final cruel twist is that Northern Irish residents, despite paying into the NHS, are unable to access abortions if they travel to Britain – their only recourse is to access costly private procedures.
Monday’s judgement in the Northern Irish High Court recounts in some of the experiences of women and girls who had to travel in order to access abortions – including a young girl raped by a family member, travelling in the midst of a police investigation, a woman fleeing an abusive relationship and a woman dealing with a diagnosis of anencephaly, denied an abortion despite medical advice that the foetus could not survive. It is admirable that these women were willing to share their experiences. They provided a reminder that behind the number 837 (the number of pregnant people who travelled to Great Britain in order to access an abortion) involve 837 complicated, complex lives, rather than easily understood clichés.
Justice Horner argued that a broad ban on abortion was a violation of the Human Rights Act, specifically the failure to provide exceptions to the law for the circumstances of fatal foetal abnormalities (rather than disabilities) and pregnancies resulting from sexual violence. This is obviously a great step forward for Northern Ireland – a region which has been loathe to offer any improvements for women hoping to access abortions without a plane ride. Yet it is concerning that only abortions in these limited situation are mentioned; as Caitlin Moran cites in her book, How to be a Woman, there is still very much a hierarchy of abortions. Women who terminate a pregnancy after sexual violence or due to a health issues are regarded much more sympathetically than students who wish to delay having a child, single mothers in financial difficulty, and most stigmatised, women who have accessed more than one abortion. While there are many reproductive justice activists who advocate incremental changes to abortion laws, this decision will serve to place a strong line between “understandable abortions” to traumatised women and “bad abortions” to women who simply do not want to remain pregnant or parent. It is disappointing that the narrative of the High Court’s judgement continues to perpetuate this abortion stigma.
It is clear the substance of this judgement will only apply to a very narrow subset of women in Northern Ireland. While there are no statistics kept in the UK regarding the number of pregnancies, and subsequent terminations due to sexual violence, less than 2% of abortions are performed due to foetal disabilities (including fatal ones.) This judgement will have limited direct applicability.
Yet the most interesting part of the judgement is based on the evidence of the Abortion Support Network’s Mara Clarke. Abortion Support Network, a London-based charity which provides grants for women in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland to travel to England in order to access an abortion, brough an understanding of the financial reality. Justice Horner acknowledged that the current Northern Irish law created a two-tiered system, where those with limited means bore the burden of attempting to raise funds in order to travel and fund the private procedure. It should be noted that while fatal foetal abnormalities are a small percentage of terminations, they are among the most expensive (as they occur at a later gestation than most abortions.) Similarly, young women who have been sexually assaulted are not always aware of a pregnancy until later in the pregnancy, which again, means that an abortion is more costly. The legalisation of these terminations means that they will likely be available to Northern Irish women on the NHS; for a small number of women, this will mean a massive financial difference.
The High Court’s decision is indeed a step for Northern Irish women; yet it is important this to be considered a step in the process of achieving reproductive justice. This is a narrow, specific victory for a small group of women; while it has advanced the conversation regarding abortion rights in Northern Ireland, it has not significantly changed the barriers that most women face in accessing abortions.