Up until the late 1960s, women attempting to terminate their pregnancies in the U.K., were treated as criminals and liable to a custodian sentence. However, the passing of The Abortion Act of 1967 legalised abortion so long as two registered doctors had given assent and it was performed within the first twenty-four weeks of pregnancy.
Ever since, women in England, Wales and Scotland have had the right to abort their foetuses and a bill put forward by Labour MP, Diane Johnson proposes to remove the last remaining legal barriers stipulated in the 1967 act to allow women to have easier access to abortion.
Whether you agree or disagree with the complete decriminalisation of abortion, we need to urgently look across the Irish sea to the one island where abortion remains outlawed: Ireland. On both sides of the border, abortion continues to be illegal, save from a few exceptional circumstances.
Unlike the other three nations, Northern Ireland was excepted from the 1967 Act. Aside from a slight amendment that allows the life of the mother to be preserved over that of the foetus, it is still subjected to section 58 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, which outlaws any attempt of a women “intent to procure her own miscarriage”. In the Republic, abortion is even more restricted. Under the 8th amendment to the Irish constitution, the state recognises that the life of the foetus is equal to that of the mother.
The antiquated and draconian law has only led many pregnant women to go abroad for an abortion. Over the past five years, 4,652 women from Norther Ireland and 19.947 women from the Republic travelled to England and Wales to have their foetuses aborted. According to the Department of Health, many of these women are in the twenties, an age where they are unlikely to have much of a disposable income, let alone enough to afford a trip abroad at such short notice.
The Irish abortion laws prevent women having safe abortions at home, forcing those who can afford it abroad and leaving those who can’t to take their chances with an illegal abortion or a forced miscarriage. Women who experience complications following an illegal abortion must run the risk of arrest in seeking medical attention. The advent of the internet has led to abortion pills being sold online and subsequent enforcement by the state. The Police Service of Northern Ireland have carried out a number of raids on houses around the North in order to seize abortion pills acquired online. Those found helping can face a prison sentence, like the Northern Irish mother who faces ten years behind bars for helping her 15-year-old daughter buy abortion pills online.
In the face of calls to reform Irish abortion laws, the Pro-Life movement has resorted to emotionally manipulative arguments. One advert in the Republic, supporting the retention of the 8th amendment, likened abortion in Ireland to the Holocaust, and to slavery in the United States. Not only is this grossly inaccurate, it is an insult to the women who feel they have little choice but to abort. As well as adverts, some pro-life group have resorted to undue pressure in order to maintain Ireland’s abortion laws. One group called Precious Life, harasses women and staff outside the only abortion clinic in Northern Ireland.
There is no logical reason why abortion should be criminalised. When women flee abroad or have an illegal abortion at home, it becomes clear that prohibition is not just ineffective, but dangerous. For some women, a coat-hanger and a bottle of bleach remain their only option.
Prosecution under section 58 of the 1861 act is a risk they just have to take.
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