Activists in Northern Ireland are closely monitoring US abortion restrictions, particularly concerns that women are now having to travel across states for abortions.
Abortion was not decriminalized in provincial Britain until 2019 – 42 years after abortions became legal in most circumstances in the rest of the UK for up to 24 weeks.
But despite the legislation, the lack of government funding and political squabbling have meant women still have to travel to mainland Britain for abortions.
There are currently no surgical abortion services in Northern Ireland and no options for an abortion after 10 weeks of pregnancy.
Last year, 161 women crossed the Irish Sea to England and Wales for an abortion, according to UK government statistics released last month.
“The fact that 161 people traveled last year is totally unacceptable, even one should be a scandal,” Abortion Support Network’s Dani Anderson told AFP.
The US Supreme Court’s recent decision to overturn the 1973 Roe v Wade ruling, which established abortion rights, prompted some states to introduce a ban.
This has raised fears that low-income, rural and black and ethnic minority women will be hit hardest when forced to travel.
– barriers –
In Northern Ireland, activists say this is already a reality.
Grainne Teggart, Amnesty International’s deputy program director in Northern Ireland, said travel for an abortion had not been “safe or feasible” for many during the pandemic.
From a public health perspective, “later trimester abortions are more complex, so the women who should be traveling the least are being pushed to travel,” added Naomi Connor, co-convener of grassroots campaign group Alliance for Choice.
She said they’ve seen cases where women who have been subjected to domestic violence or in forced relationships have been reluctant to make long trips because they were “really worried that somebody would find out.”
As in neighboring Ireland, where an abortion ban was overturned in a referendum in 2018, religious conservatism runs strong in Northern Ireland, both among Catholics and Protestants. This also led to a delay in legalizing same-sex marriage.
Especially in rural communities, women have been reluctant to explicitly request termination due to stigma.
A refugee in Belfast who fled his home country after a forced marriage was told she would have to travel to get an abortion.
But with limited knowledge of English and other restrictions, she couldn’t start the journey, said Connor.
Eventually she was helped, but there were times when caseworkers had to say nothing can be done.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Connor said.
– Politics –
Healthcare is a decentralized issue at the Northern Ireland Assembly in Belfast.
But the main pro-British party is currently refusing to join the power-sharing executive between unionists and nationalists over post-Brexit trade.
Northern Ireland Health Minister Robin Swann claims he is unable to commission full abortion services without a functioning executive.
Individual health foundations that have stepped in are struggling due to limited funding.
“Since April 2020, when services were due to be commissioned, various individual health trusts have had to withdraw services due to a lack of resources,” Connor said.
Last year, a trust had to temporarily suspend its early medical abortion services for a year and redirect patients elsewhere in Northern Ireland.
Activists also complain about a lack of public information about options for women before they are past the first 10 weeks of pregnancy.
Still, there is renewed hope that abortion services can finally be commissioned, despite the current political paralysis.
UK MPs in London recently voted to implement access to services in Northern Ireland and pass the Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2022.
They allow Britain’s Secretary for Northern Ireland, Brandon Lewis, to intervene and controversially flout the authority of the devolved administration in Belfast.
Teggart welcomed the regulations as a “very necessary step”.
“For the Health Secretary (Swann), it is a damning indictment of his failure to prioritize women’s and girls’ health,” she said.
Lewis would like the services to be “deployed and available across Northern Ireland as soon as possible”.
Swann “is currently awaiting legal advice” on the implications of the new regulations, his department said.
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