"The 1967 Abortion Act Celebrates its 50th birthday this October. It was an important first step in trusting women with decisions over their own body. We must ensure that this first step is applied equally across the UK. I am fearful that if progress is made without parity, the women of Northern Ireland will just be left further behind. Women in all parts of the UK, with our allies, must fight together."
It’s time the UK trusted women and took abortion rights seriously as an important area of women’s healthcare. We hear horror stories about women in Ireland, and Northern Ireland, but often people are oblivious of the key shortcomings in the law in the majority of the UK.
It is crucial to raise at this juncture that it is appalling that women in Northern Ireland and Ireland have virtually no access to a safe, legal abortion in their own towns and cities. Exceptions are rarely acted on, and are tight and moralistic. I was deeply hurt by the lack of mention that Northern Ireland got during the MP debate on decriminalising abortion earlier this year.
Whilst I want to see a fundamental change in abortion regulation in the UK, as a first step, I want to see an extension of the 1967 Act to Northern Ireland immediately. I have heard arguments recently opposing the extension of 1967 on the grounds that it would be politically difficult or that it does not go far enough. I personally have little time for those who argue that it would be politically difficult. There is no constitutional bar to this being done by Westminster. This is a human rights issue, not a devolved one. ‘Politically difficult’ is a paltry excuse to deny women rights. For too long, people have let fear of past violence and lack of understanding of political nuance prevent progress in Northern Ireland. Survey after survey shows that the people of Northern Ireland are moving on, but the politics is not.
I have much more sympathy for those who argue that 1967 does not go far enough. However, whilst he existing legislation in the UK is imperfect, it’s infinitely better than what women in Northern Ireland currently face. Stella Creasy has already challenged the Government on this one and they blinked. They know that there is cross party support for this. The Labour Women MP group is one of the largest groupings in Westminster. These women must use their positions of privilege to get something done now, and encourage all men to stand behind them in support.
This is a manifesto promise that we can act on now -we do not need to wait to enter government to fight for the women of Northern Ireland. Women in Northern Ireland cannot wait any longer with no protection.
This is where we must start, but we must not stop there. It’s not enough to extend 1967 to Northern Ireland. Of course it’s not enough. Just as it’s not enough for the thousands of women in the rest of the UK who need the approval of two doctors
Words matter. The structure of the law matters. At the moment, abortion sits in the realm of the criminal law, rather than purely healthcare. The 1967 Act only set out situations in which women and their doctors would not be prosecuted. However, this threat of prosecution hangs over this area of healthcare. It can have a chilling effect on doctors specialising in this important area of women’s healthcare. When you add a lack of doctors to a requirement that abortions be approved by two doctors, you create unnecessary delay for women who are certain about their decision. This can lead to a more complex procedure, and have long term effects on a woman’s physical and mental health. Current interpretation of the act prevents nurse or midwife led services which are becoming the model in maternity services.
A survey by YouGov showed that 71% of adults in the UK are in favour of decriminalising abortion, and the vast majority of medical staff are behind this. The Royal College of Midwives have officially supported decriminalising abortion since February 2016.
This fight for women’s right to choose what to do with their own bodies does not look like it is going to stop any time soon. We can never stop. Look at what is happening in the US, with a roll back of clinic provision and increase in conditions. Governments can change, political atmospheres can change, but human rights provision must not. We must ensure that we do not just fight for rights to be recognised by law for principle’s sake, but to make sure that every woman who needs access to a free, safe, legal abortion can do so.
The 1967 Act Celebrates its 50th birthday this October. It was an important first step in trusting women with decisions over their own body. We must ensure that this first step is applied equally across the UK. I am fearful that if progress is made without parity, the women of Northern Ireland will just be left further behind. Women in all parts of the UK, with our allies, must fight together. MPs already voted in favour of a Bill to decriminalise abortion put forward by Diana Johnson in March 2017. Let’s put our words into action.
Charlotte Norton is editor of Anticipations. Follow her on Twitter at 'Charlottelvn90