In Northern Ireland a woman who has been raped or abused can still receive a longer prison sentence than her rapist or abuser if she seeks to end the resulting unwanted pregnancy.
Sit with the implications of that sentence for a moment. Thanks the 1861 Offenses Against The Person Act, written over 151 years ago, anyone performing or receiving abortions there can be threatened with life imprisonment.
But after a landslide referendum to legalize abortion in the Republic of Ireland earlier this year, campaigners in the North clearly feel now is the time to press for reform there too. However campaigners in the North have a unique opponent that citizens of the Republic did not face: the Democratic Unionist Party.
When it comes to issues of sex, sexuality and women’s bodies, the DUP inhabit a mindset that veers between the 1950's and the 17 century. The have shown themselves to be more than happy to protect long standing and discriminatory laws that ensure the second-class citizenship of tens of thousands of their own constituents.
In fact Northern Ireland has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe, permitting abortion only in the narrowest of circumstances, and not even in cases of rape, incest or fatal fetal abnormality.
The results of these restrictions are sobering. Five years ago a 15-year-old girl reportedly travelled from Northern Ireland to Manchester with her mother to have an abortion at a private clinic. The procedure, the travel and the accommodation eventually cost them in the region of £900.
Had they been from anywhere in mainland U.K. a termination would have been free on the National Health Service (NHS) but because they were from Northern Ireland they were effectively exiled, forced to travel over seas and then pay out of pocket themselves, with the added insult of being somewhere completely unfamiliar at a time of considerable concern or distress.
In another shocking case that seems to have been culled from the pages of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaids Tale, another Northern Irish mother who helped her 15-year-old daughter procure abortion pills online has been forced to contest the decision to prosecute her. The trial continues this week.
The case came to the attention of prosecutors when a doctor at the clinic where the girl sought advice (after admitting she had taken abortion pills) reported her to the police. But aren't Doctors supposed to make medical decisions, not shop their patients to law enforcement?
In a twist that unmasks the shaming intention of the reporting doctor and the North's draconian abortion laws, the girl at the centre of the case is not herself being prosecuted. It's her mother who faces two charges of unlawfully procuring “poison” (the abortion drugs mifepristone and misoprostol) with the intent to procure a miscarriage, contrary to the draconian 1861 Offenses Against the Person Act, and then supplying that “poison” to her daughter.
If convicted, the mother faces a maximum sentence of ten years imprisonment. Ten years. It's insane. The trial continues this week.
Because these stories don't happen in a vacuum, here's a little background on the 15 year old girl in the case. She reportedly found out she was pregnant after a relationship with a boy a year older than her, who she described as physically abusive.
In written evidence submitted to the court, her lawyers said the sixteen year old boy had threatened to kick the baby out of her, and to stab it if it was born.
Like a lot of people in the North, neither the mother nor the young girl fully understood the full extent of the North's ban on almost any kind of abortion procedure, so the letter informing them of their prosecution came like cold water to the face. Finally they had to contend with exactly where they were living.
In a written statement to the court the girl wrote, “I was only 15 years old and I was frightened by the prospect of being a mother. I was still a child myself and I was not sure that I would be able to cope. I was still at school and was in my first year of the GCSE cycle. I had always planned to do A-levels and I wanted to go to university. I knew that all of this would have been extremely difficult as a single mother.”
She added that she was frightened the boy in question might continue to abuse her, or her child. “The idea of my ex-boyfriend being the father of my child and having him in my life in the long term made me physically ill.”
Telling your doctor the truth about the medicine you took or the procedures you have had shouldn't result in the threat of your imprisonment. It's time for this old, discriminatory 1861 law to be lifted.