On 31st May, ROSA activists, working with doctors from Women on Web, took safe but illegal abortion pills outside Belfast’s Laganside Courts – the same courts where women have been sentenced for having abortions with the pills, while over 94% of reported rapes in Northern Ireland end without convictions. An attempt was made to arrest one of the activists but police were forced to retreat when other protesters rallied round. The action demonstrated the safety and availability of the pills, which are used every day in Northern Ireland, provided mainly by Women on Web.
This continued a campaign of civil disobedience spearheaded by ROSA and Women on Web in the South since 2014. Irish conservative politicians cited the pills as the key motive for abandoning their “pro-life” positions to support repeal and pro-choice legislation. Pregnant people on the island of Ireland are already having abortions and – while denying abortion has killed people, as in the tragic case of Savita Halappanavar – the effect of criminalisation is most often stigmatising people seeking abortions, forcing them to travel, and deterring them from going to doctors, fearing legal repercussions.
Repeal has thrown a spotlight on Northern Ireland’s abortion laws. ROSA’s abortion pill action and #Bus4Choice focused the gaze of the world intensely upon Northern Ireland’s abortion ban, with major international news outlets reporting on the action, and added to the pressure on Westminster.
The abortion ban and the supply of pills
The illegality of abortion means that people obtaining the safe abortion pills online risk them being seized in the post. The authorities are aware of Women on Web, but so many use the pills that customs resources are significantly outstripped, making the law unenforceable. Some politicians may also be aware of the pills, but can hypocritically turn a blind eye and treat them as a solution to a problem they won’t address through legislation.
After the abortion pill action, ROSA activists got onboard the #Bus4Choice. We invited people for consultations with Dr. Rebecca Gomperts to receive the pills, and made clear that ROSA will facilitate abortion access for anyone seeking help. Attempts to undermine the supply of safe abortion pills are already countered by a strong network of Women on Web and ROSA activists across the island of Ireland. Since ROSA’s first abortion pill bus in 2013, awareness and usage of the pills has increased, undermining the abortion ban, and helping to spur on repeal of the Eighth Amendment. The pressure our actions placed on politicians proves that direct action can be a key tool in driving mass movements forward.
Orange and Green parties obstructing to the right to choose
On the #Bus4Choice we travelled to Lisburn and Cookstown where we protested outside the offices of the DUP and Sinn Féin. DUP politicians declined to defend their position when contacted by Sky News, but Jim Wells, in a suspected vigilante mission, held a one-man counter-protest at our picket in Lisburn as passing cars honked in support of our banner. In Cookstown, the office of Sinn Féin MLA Francie Molly – an anti-choice dinosaur who opposed repeal of the Eighth Amendment and abortion even in cases where a pregnant person’s health is at risk – was closed when we arrived, but protesters dressed in costumes from the Handmaid’s Tale and shouting pro-choice slogans certainly caught the attention of local people.
In Derry we were greeted by Alliance for Choice and other pro-choice activists and we held a rally for abortion rights. At the conference of NIPSA, the North’s largest trade union, we called for solidarity. The next day, NIPSA passed a motion to support ROSA and other pro-choice groups in the fight for abortion rights.
We have to maintain and increase the pressure on Westminster and our local politicians to guarantee real abortion access in Northern Ireland. This cannot wait for the sectarian parties to resolve their disagreements and catch up with ordinary people in the 21st century. We demand free, safe, legal abortion, here and now!
By Eleanor Crossey-Malone