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‘I’m not a criminal any longer’: Women's relief as abortion law changes in Northern Ireland

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Campaigners mark the decriminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland outside Stormont, in a demonstration organised by Amnesty International.
Campaigners mark the decriminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland outside Stormont, in a demonstration organised by Amnesty International. -
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Simon Graham/Amnesty International
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As Northern Ireland decriminalised abortion on Monday at midnight, pro-choice campaigners marked a new era of openness and freedom in the British province.

Until this week, Northern Ireland had prohibited abortion in all cases except when a mother’s life was at risk, with women and doctors facing sentences up to life in prison under an 1861 law.

But in July, the UK government passed legislation that would legalise same-sex marriage and abortion provided that the province's executive, known as Stormont, was still in a stalemate.

Northern Ireland has been without a government for nearly three years since the power-sharing assembly collapsed in January 2017.

Read more: It's a 1,000 days since Northern Ireland last had a government

"As a woman living in Northern Ireland and as someone who is in touch with people who have had abortions and who have been refused abortions, many of those women, myself included, woke up on Tuesday morning and said well I’m not a criminal any longer," said Naomi Connor, who is a co-convener with Alliance for Choice, a grassroots pro-choice organisation that has fought for change in Northern Ireland.

"So I think it has that cathartic effect."

Some of the women who contacted her after the law changed said they had travelled to England — where abortion was decriminalised in the late 1960s — in order to have an abortion. One person admitted to being religious but believing that women should be allowed to choose.

Connor herself travelled from Northern Ireland to Manchester, England, to have a surgical abortion six years ago. At the clinic in Manchester, she said what struck her was that people were professional and friendly.

"They treated me as a person, and I think the reason that struck me was that... I had come from a place of such stigma, such entrenched stigma that I found... people being friendly, professional, and helpful a bit strange," she said.

After the procedure, she had a reaction to the general anaesthetic at the airport while waiting to go back to Northern Ireland.

"I should never have had to travel especially on an aeroplane the same day as having a general anaesthetic, but if you're a woman who's had an abortion then tough that's what you have to do and that in itself is disgraceful," Connor said.

The NHS has covered the expenses of abortions for Northern Irish women travelling to England since June 2017.

'Underground network'

For activists in Northern Ireland, the ruling from Westminster in July came as a shock, says Hamsavani Rajeswarenm, vice-president for equality and diversity at the Queen's University Students' Union in Belfast.

“We didn’t see that coming - it was quite a fantastic thing,” Rajeswarenm told Euronews.

Rajeswarenm described how in the past women in Northern Ireland who needed abortions were unable to get advice about access to treatment. For years, groups like her own risked criminal conviction by providing advice to women, operating akin to an underground operation.

In many cases, Rajeswarenm said, women would seek advice from other women written on the inside of toilet cubicles in cities like Belfast - and now they are planning national campaigns.

“There was so much shame and stigma, and to think it has gone from this shameful thing - where people were writing on toilet cubicles with sharpies - to something that can be rolled out as a national campaign, it is quite a big moment,” she said.

Connor, meanwhile, said that when she sought information at a family planning association before having an abortion, anti-abortion activists followed her and taunted her, telling her that she would get breast cancer.

According to the NHS and American Cancer Society, there is no proven link between breast cancer and induced abortion.

'Back to being a mother'

Pending abortion cases in Northern Ireland are being dropped as a result of the changes.

Belfast's Crown Court dropped charges against a mother who bought her 15-year-old daughter abortion pills online. The woman had been facing up to five years in prison, said Amnesty International, which was an intervener in the judicial review.

"For the first time in six years, I can go back to being the mother I was," the mother said anonymously in an Amnesty International statement released on Wednesday.

In the same statement, the woman's lawyer, Jemma Conlon, said her client was relieved, finding herself "free from the burden of this prosecution that has been in her life for 6 years."

'A new era'?

"This is a hugely significant moment and the beginning of a new era for Northern Ireland," said Grainne Teggart, Amnesty International's Northern Ireland campaign manager in a statement.

"Finally, our human rights are being brought into the 21st century."

A UN expert committee on eliminating discrimination against women said in February 2018 that the UK had violated the rights of women in Northern Ireland "by unduly restricting their access to abortion" and a High Court in Belfast ruled that abortion laws in the province were in breach of the UK's human rights obligations.

But there is vocal opposition to abortion in Northern Ireland politics.

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) was against the changes, attempting on Monday to recall the Northern Irish assembly in a last-minute bid to block the changes.

"Northern Ireland will have the most liberal abortion laws anywhere in Europe," DUP leader Arlene Foster said. "I think this is a shameful day... it is certainly not a day of celebration for the unborn."

Foster added that there was no regulatory system in place in the country for abortion. Northern Ireland will have to adopt new regulations on abortion brought forth by the UK government by the end of March 2020.

Ireland legalised abortion in a 2018 referendum that saw over two million voters in the once deeply Catholic nation back the change by 66%. In the United Kingdom, abortion has been legal under certain circumstances since 1967 up to 24 weeks.

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