Home World The days of siege are over: how Northern Ireland took the UK lead on abortion

The days of siege are over: how Northern Ireland took the UK lead on abortion

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The days of siege are over: how Northern Ireland took the UK lead on abortion

Family planning counselors in Shaftesbury Square still remember the days of siege when anti-abortion protesters occupied the front and back entrances to their office in central Belfast.

Some pickets sprinkled holy water on doors and daubed salt crosses on the sidewalk while others threw leaflets with photos of babies and fetuses to women entering or leaving the building, and sometimes followed them.

The chants reached the third floor where counselors informed clients of options in the event of an unwanted or difficult pregnancy. “Hey, hey FPA,” said the voices in the street, “how many children did you kill today?”

It was a frightening atmosphere, said Ruairi Rowan, director of advocacy and policy. Informing the choices Northern Ireland (ICNI), a sexual and reproductive health charity which has taken over the functions of the former branch of the Family Planning Association. “People felt intimidated. Sometimes we begin a counseling session by explaining what had happened outside before they arrived.

A decade later, the scene is transforming. Today there are no protests in Shaftesbury Square and the only noise coming from the third floor is the hum of traffic. Northern Ireland’s abortion ban has given way to decriminalization and progressive jurisdiction.

“Abortion services are now available at all five hospitals in Northern Ireland, enabling the majority of demand to be met locally,” the Department of Health said. Medical abortion is available in all circumstances, as provided for in the 2020 regulations, and surgical abortion is available up to 20 weeks. “Work is underway to ensure this service is extended as quickly as possible up to 24 weeks gestation,” the department added. “Women who need access to this service can continue to receive free abortion care in Britain. »

Ruairi Rowan at the Belfast office of Informing Choices Northern Ireland. Photograph: Rory Carroll/The Guardian

Decriminalization means that Northern Ireland, once associated with draconian restrictions, now offers greater protection to women compared to England and Wales, where they can be prosecuted for terminating a pregnancy after the limit of 24 weeks.

“We have one of the best laws in the world right now,” said Emma Campbell of Alliance for Choice. “It doesn’t make sense that you don’t just take that minimum gold standard and extend it to the whole country.”

Many campaigners in Northern Ireland believe the region has a head start – unlike in 2017, when a mother was charged for helping her pregnant 15-year-old daughter obtain abortion pills online. “Since no one is threatened with prosecution, it’s just a lot easier to help people,” Campbell said. “It really provides a great safety net for activists.”

It is a remarkable turnaround for a region once synonymous with the extreme social conservatism of Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leaders who called homosexuality an “abomination” and campaigned to “save Ulster from sodomy”. . Britain legalized abortion up to 24 weeks in most cases in 1967, but Northern Ireland maintained a ban approved by Catholic and Protestant leaders.

Secularization, legal challenges and high-profile cases, such as that of Sarah Ewart who was forced to travel to England for an abortion after learning that her baby would not survive, have changed public opinion, but it was a vote in Westminster, not Stormont, that legalized abortion in 2019.

The rollout of the service has been slow and uneven, a victim of disputes between the Northern Ireland office and the Department of Health, the Covid pandemic, a lack of political will and the stalemate in Belfast. This changed in March 2022 when the UK government overrode the Stormont Executive and asked health trusts in the region to provide abortion services.

The Health Ministry did not provide figures, but ICNI estimates that since then around 7,600 abortions have been performed. “There is a sense of relief and pride that women no longer have to travel to access health care that they should always have had access to. It took away a lot of the stigma,” Rowan said.

Sporadic protests took place outside clinics, but last September a law creating a buffer came into force, prohibiting people from being “annoyed, recorded, influenced or caused by harassment, alarm or distress” in designated areas.

We are still seeing protesters brandishing crude images, but it is welcome that we have legislation to tackle this,” said Connie Egan, spokesperson for the Alliance on Violence Against Women and Girls party, speaking at personal title.

Pro-choice activists also welcome the fact that Stanton Healthcare, an anti-abortion charity, has stopped appearing at the top of Google searches for people seeking information.

Some women still leave Northern Ireland to have an abortion, but the number of contacts with Abortion Support Network, a British charity, grew from 28 in 2021, eight in 2022 and six in 2023, said Annie Tidbury, ASN services manager. These calls, however, show continued uncertainty about the availability of local services, she said. “The lack of clear information can cause fear in people. »

There are other concerns. The number of refugees seeking help has reportedly increased sharply. The pool of qualified and experienced medical staff is limited, making services vulnerable to disruption and a potential postcode lottery for access. Conscientious objection within health services is relatively high.

Alyson Kilpatrick, chief commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, said the services had not been implemented consistently and comprehensively, leading to delays. “We recommend that the UK Government, in conjunction with the Department of Health, ensures that sufficient, long-term and earmarked funding is available and fully used to maintain consistent abortion services. »

Rowan said delays and gaps in services were unfortunate, but Northern Ireland had led by example. “No woman should be sent to prison for having an abortion. »

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