“I’ve known so many women who’ve suffered because of these Draconian laws & I have a right to stand up and support them #NowForNI”.
This is how Nicola Coughlan, Derry Girls actor, responded to criticism on Twitter after taking part in a protest for abortion rights in Northern Ireland at the end of February. The action was organised by Amnesty International and provided a stark visual reminder of the reality of our laws: 28 people every week travel to Britain to access abortion services. In addition, others travel elsewhere or take safe but illegal abortion pills that can be purchased online from organisations including womenonweb.org. These figures demonstrate what Nicola Coughlan expressed: we all know people who have suffered as a result of the near total ban on abortions here. And this is no longer acceptable.
Westminster and Tory-DUP government dragging their heels
Still, Westminster continues to refuse to act in the face of growing pressure, particularly since the historic victory of the ‘repeal’ referendum in the South last year. Amendments and bills that have been brought on this issue have been continuously delayed. Undoubtedly, Theresa May would prefer if this issue disappeared. It is so contentious for her due to her party’s ongoing reliance on DUP votes in parliament on the one hand, and increasingly expressed support for reform and liberalisation of abortion legislation here, even from within the Tory parliamentary party. Not even the Tories are immune to pressure from below.
Indeed, one of the lessons of Repeal was that political parties can be forced to change their official positions. All the main parties in the South went from being opposed to increased abortion access to supporting Repeal, with many key figures also expressing that, due to the availability of the abortion pills that can be used for terminations up to 12 weeks, any lower time limit would be irrational. Sinn Féin, running to catch up with public opinion, only changed their policy to endorse the right to choose for any reason up to 12 weeks after the ‘yes’ vote in the referendum. These changes were, in and of themselves, a major victory for the pro-choice movement and for activists who worked tirelessly, not only during the referendum campaign, but in the preceding years to secure the referendum in the first place.
We won’t wait
In the North, the fight continues. Clearly the referendum in the South, as well as coverage of court cases such as the legal action taken by Sara Ewart, have impacted on people’s views. Now, opinion polls consistently show majority support for pregnant people to be able to choose, including being able to access abortion services in Northern Ireland. Yet, by their continued refusal to act, politicians are sending the message that women and pregnant people must wait for Stormont parties to get their act together before change can happen. This should be rejected. Bold actions such as those organised by ROSA with the abortion pill bus are also needed to demonstrate that the current laws are not fit for purpose and are unworkable.
As well as fighting for abortion rights, the right to choose also means being able to have children. Due to pay-freezes, precarious jobs and low wages, many working class people are put off having children. Having children is also the main contributing factor for the gender pay gap, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. This demonstrates how the struggle for abortion rights is also connected to economic issues. ROSA aims to join these struggles together and build an active, cross-community campaign with the participation of the trade unions that can also challenge attempts to sectarianise these issues.
by Ann Orr