Campaigners say women can face jail sentences up to life in NI due to Victorian legislation.
The horror that has grasped social media on Alabama’s near-total ban on abortion has caused campaigners to repeat the fact that a worse situation currently exists in Northern Ireland.
According to pro-choice campaigners, Northern Irish anti-abortion laws are actually stricter than the legislation Republican senators have introduced in the southern US state.
Unlike Alabama’s new law, women in Northern Ireland can face jail sentences up to life because the Offences Against the Persons Act 1861 remains in place. Under this piece of draconian law, anyone procuring an abortion – medical staff or pregnant women – can face life imprisonment.
Abortion is legal under certain circumstances in England and Wales and Scotland based on the Abortion Act 1967, then one of the most liberal abortion laws in Europe when it was enacted.
However, this act doesn't cover Northern Ireland where women are only permitted a termination if their life is at risk or there is a serious risk to their mental health.
This law bans abortion in almost all circumstances, including rape, incest and fatal fetal abnormality. It provides for severe penalties including life imprisonment.
“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 into the dark ages," said Grainne Teggart, Amnesty UK’s Northern Ireland campaign manager.
“It’s devastating news that Alabama has become the latest in a string of US states to enact a horrifying abortion ban. The roll-back on reproductive rights in the US is happening at a terrifyingly rapid rate.
“We should be outraged by this, but let’s also 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 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.”
In a letter to the women and girls of Alabama, a pro-choice organisation in Northern Ireland warned them to be vigilant for informers who may report them for taking abortion pills.
In it, Alliance for Choice said: “You might need to forge strong relationships with online abortion pill providers, who are the only safe way to provide for women who fall through the cracks and cannot travel; those in coercive control relationships, with disabilities, with precarious jobs that don’t approve sudden days off, unsure immigration status and lack of access to finance, the list goes on.”
Alliance for Choice's letter also heralds the importance of going against the system to procure healthcare – a process with which they are entirely familiar.
“You will have to become the people, instead of clinicians, that offer advice and help to women and pregnant people who need abortions; you will have to find ways of sharing the information that helps the most people without getting yourselves into trouble.
“Finally, you and the people you help might actually get arrested, you might have your homes searched and your workplaces raided. Maybe a GP will inform the police of your illegal behaviour, or a flatmate … either way, you really have to know who you can trust with the information about your medical procedure, if you access pills at home because you cannot travel.”