Changes to Northern Ireland’s abortion regulations came into effect on 1st April. Following legislative changes by Westminster when Stormont was not functioning as a devolved government, terminations can now be carried out in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy without restriction. These changes are very welcome and are the result of years of campaigning by activists, including members of the Socialist Party and ROSA. While we celebrate this victory, we have to recognise we have not yet reached our aim of ensuring that pregnant people have full bodily autonomy, which includes being able to freely access abortion services through the NHS in Northern Ireland without restriction.
The regulations also provide for access to abortion services up to 24 weeks’ gestation where continuing with the pregnancy would involve a greater risk of “injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman” than a termination. However, two medical professionals (doctor, midwife or nurse) have to confirm this. In some cases there is no time-limit placed. This includes circumstances where the life of the pregnant person is in danger or where the foetus is likely to die before, during or shortly after birth.
The Department of Health at Stormont, headed up by Robin Swann (UUP), will have to put the regulations into practice. Since MPs voted last July to decriminalise abortion in Northern Ireland, people seeking abortions could travel to Britain and avail of abortion services on the NHS, with travel costs covered, until the legislation was implemented here. This urgent matter has been made even more acute by the travel restrictions put in place due to the Covid-19 crisis, which mean access to abortion services in Britain for pregnant people in Northern Ireland is nearly impossible.
According to a BBC report, “Mr Swann is considering the matter, but any decision will have to come from the Executive as a whole, because of the significance and sensitivity of the issue”. The issue is only seen as sensitive by the minority who oppose abortion access. Stormont must not be allowed to kick the can down the road on ensuring pregnant people have the ability to control their own bodies, which must include easily accessible abortion services on the NHS in Northern Ireland. There is massive additional pressure on ordinary people due to the coronavirus pandemic. People who need an abortion must be able to have it now and access these services locally. Needless delays by Stormont cannot be tolerated. The need for medical abortions (by use of pills up to 12 weeks) to be accessible at home with a prescription from a GP is now more evident than ever because of the Covid-19 crisis.
The fight is not over
The new regulations suggest medical abortions should only be carried out in GP surgeries or other Trust clinics, which is a major limitation. However, the Minister for Health has the power to change this. We call on Robin Swann to immediately allow for telemedicine (online consultation with a medical practitioner) and to allow people to use abortion pills in their own homes. We encourage people to sign Alliance for Choice’s petition on the issue here. The medicines used are very safe and are on the World Health Organisation’s list of essential medicines. There is no medical reason why the first of the two medicines needed cannot also be taken at home.
However, the indications are that Stormont politicians, instead of making basic healthcare more easily accessible, are pushing back against the recent changes. Stormont’s health committee, in the midst of a pandemic, has decided to look into whether Stormont can challenge the new abortion regulations. This happened after the DUP’s Alex Easton raised the issue in the health committee on 26/03/2020. He is reported to have said: “We have asked the clerk of the committee to check whether we can overturn what Westminster has put in place. I think the timing is a bit mischievous, that it is happening during the coronavirus outbreak, I think it has been done deliberately at this time”. Any attempt like this to delay and indeed use the Covid-19 crisis to stall the availability of abortion services in Northern Ireland must be resisted.
The struggle for bodily autonomy is linked to the fight against capitalism
Like here, struggles for abortion rights and bodily autonomy in other places have shown that real change is achieved through united campaigning and struggle by ordinary people which involves bringing together young people and workers of all genders. International examples, such as from states in the USA, also show that rights that have been won can be rolled back again under the capitalist system.
For socialists, the struggle for bodily autonomy and reproductive rights is linked to the fight against oppression. But oppression is etched into the core of capitalism, which is a system based on exploitation and whose motivation stems from maximising the profits of a few rather than meeting the needs of society. For this reason, wages are forced down, public services are underfunded and privatised and the burden for caring for children and sick or elderly relatives is largely placed on the shoulders of working-class women.
Therefore, as well as campaigning for abortion rights, the Socialist Party fights for well-funded, public services including child care, decent public housing and a £12/hour minimum wage. We also recognise that the struggle against oppression must involve a political challenge to the capitalist system. We stand for a socialist society in which the wealth that exists would be democratically controlled and the economy would be focused on meeting social needs. In this, a socialist society, we would have the ability to end oppression in all its forms.