The decriminalisation of abortion in England and Wales is a slap in the face for women in Northern Ireland

Siobhan Fenton
In November 2015 a high court ruling found that the Northern Irish abortion ban is a breach of international human rights legislation: Getty Images

Today MPs voted to decriminalise abortion in England and Wales. The move is largely symbolic as the 1967 Abortion Act effectively decriminalised terminations in England and Wales 50 years ago, on the condition of doctors’ approval and subject to time limits.

However, the move has been heralded as important nonetheless. As Diana Johnson, the Labour MP who introduced the bill told the chamber that in passing full decriminalisation: "For the first time women will be recognised as the authors of our own lives".

Few could disagree with the sentiment. Free, safe and legal abortion is a human right and the mark of a compassionate and fair society which recognises women as full citizens and autonomous beings.

Yet, well it was designed to illustrate how compassionate and progressive the House of Commons is on the issue of abortion, it did the exact opposite.

As a Northern Irish woman watching the debate unfold, it is no exaggeration to say this afternoon felt like little more than a slap in the face.

As they filed into their garish green benches in the House of Commons and English pro-choice charities sat above them in the parliamentary viewing galleries with baited breath, a commotion of an altogether different kind was happening elsewhere.

In Belfast, the Northern Irish police have raided the homes of several women as part of a crackdown on abortion pills. Frightened women are hiding pills, bracing themselves for court and desperately finding other ways to perform abortions on themselves, in ways the police can’t find out.

Abortion remains a criminal offence here, where women face up to life in prison as abortion constitutes ‘murder’. The law is far from abstract or symbolic, but women here live under constant and credible threat of police raids and arrests.

Last April, a woman was convicted of ‘committing’ an abortion in Northern Ireland. A Belfast court was told that, aged 19, she experienced an unplanned pregnancy and tried to get enough money to travel to England for an abortion. Unable to access the funds needed, she desperately bought abortion pills online and had them illegally smuggled into Northern Ireland. Her housemates found blood stained clothing and foetal remains in their communal kitchen bin. They called the police and she was arrested.

The incident is not an isolated one. Another woman is currently awaiting trial in Belfast charged with helping her 15-year-old daughter to access abortion pills. She is due to stand trial shortly.

The British government has consistently turned a blind eye to this, either through a desire to avoid difficult conversations or through genuine ignorance on what life is like for women in the farthest flung region of the UK.

To be clear, it is the central British government which is responsible for ensuring Northern Ireland’s abortion ban is overturned. Healthcare is devolved to Northern Ireland at Stormont, but a November 2015 high court ruling found that the Northern Irish abortion ban is a breach of international human rights legislation. Healthcare is a devolved issue, but human rights are not – it is the central British government’s responsibility to ensure no human rights breaches occur in the UK.

Since November 2015 therefore, it has been the House of Commons which is breaching international human rights legislation by denying Northern Irish women abortions.

To see MPs today argue for full decriminalisation of abortion for English and Welsh women, therefore felt little short of insulting. Of course, I welcome the move for English and Welsh women and hope it brings improvements to access on their side of the Irish Sea. However, to see MPs sit in the same chamber where they are committing human rights abuses of Northern Irish women on the very same issue made a mockery of the whole debate.

If MPs truly care about women’s access to safe, legal healthcare as they pledged today, it should be for all the women that they are responsible for – not just the women who might vote for them. Reproductive rights took a step in the right direction today for English and Welsh women, but in so doing so an ever widening chasm of hypocrisy on Northern Ireland women’s rights has been stretched further by MPs.