09:22, May 17 287 0 theguardian.com

2019-05-17 09:22:04
In Northern Ireland, our hearts break for Alabama: we know about abortion bans

It feels like a lifetime ago since 25 May 2018. In many ways it was, because that day – when the Republic of Ireland voted to repeal the eighth amendment of its constitution, which outlawed abortion in virtually every circumstance – was a unique step forward for abortion rights in a world where they are rapidly being dismantled.

While the legislation brought in after the Irish referendum is imperfect, the overall success of the repeal movement against so many obstacles gave campaigners across the world an incredible sense of hope. But one year on, global abortion rights are under increasing threat, and that moment in May 2018 feels like an exception, instead of a promise of what was to come.

Attacking abortion anywhere will send a chill through women everywhere, and we must stand in solidarity with those whose rights are being demolished. But the furore over the devastating blows against reproductive rights in the US – particularly the draconian law passed last week in Alabama – forgets that women and people with uteruses in Northern Ireland have been living under a law similar to Alabama’s since 1861.

We have been criminalised. We have been threatened and prosecuted. We have been shamed. We have been forced to travel to Great Britain to access the basic healthcare we should get at home. Never mind that abortions are now free for Northern Irish women in England, it doesn’t matter: it is a sticking plaster on a broken political conscience that is failing us. The government knows this. It could legislate to give women and LGBTQ people in Northern Ireland the same human rights enjoyed by the rest of the UK and which have been called for by the UN, but it won’t, because the Democratic Unionist party (DUP) doesn’t want them to.

The success of the Irish vote shone such a spotlight on the failures in Northern Ireland that it seemed the UK government would have to bow to pressure to extend abortion rights here. While the long-running fight picked up new momentum – including attempts by Labour MPs to repeal the provision criminalising abortion in the Offenses Against the Person Act 1861 – progress has stalled. As long as the DUP props up the failing Conservative government, it is in a position to block whatever it wants when it comes to Northern Ireland – and what it wants is for women and the LGBTQ community to remain second-class citizens.

There is precious little difference between the DUP and America’s anti-abortion cabal. Driven by misogyny and class prejudice, their need to restrict abortion is ultimately about control. To see their fight to decimate abortion rights as a single issue, rather than part of a campaign of control against women and marginalised communities, is to misunderstand what abortion is.

Abortion is freedom. It is the freedom to get an education and a job to try to lift yourself and your family out of poverty, the freedom to parent the children you already have in financial security and to the best of your ability, and the freedom to make the choices that are best for your body and your life. For many people, an abortion is the foundation of the rest of their lives. Reproductive rights are liberation – and anti-abortionists know it – because without these rights, entire communities are further marginalised and impoverished. Women in Ireland know this, having spent generations under a regime of coercive control of which lack of abortion rights was just one part. The same people attacking abortion rights are also blocking access to comprehensive sex education and contraception – in the UK, it is the same people who removed Northern Ireland from the domestic violence bill making its way through Westminster.

And because abortion is freedom to whoever needs it, there is no such thing as a “more extreme” abortion law. An abortion denied to an asylum seeker in Ireland without the papers to travel, and whose pregnancy has gone beyond 12 weeks, is as extreme as the mother in Alabama who has two children and for whom a third could push her into poverty. The university student whose birth control failed and who is denied an abortion because the embryo already has a heartbeat will find the law as extreme as a rape victim who cannot access healthcare to help her to take her life back. The denial of abortion to someone who needs one is in itself extreme. It is not about when someone ends a pregnancy, or why, it is about controlling women’s bodies and choices in life. It is punishment. Anyone who has lived in a place without free, safe and legal abortion can tell you this.

In Northern Ireland, our hearts break for Alabama because we know what’s coming. Threats. Prosecutions. Seizure of safe but illegal abortion pills. Shame. Families and friends turning each other in to the authorities. Fear.

If you’re in the UK and you’re furious, there is something you can do. Call your MP. Tell them to decriminalise abortion in Northern Ireland (and in the whole of the UK). Tell them they should be more worried about our human rights than what impact finally taking a stand may or may not have on a devolved institution that doesn’t currently exist. Support the local groups that have been campaigning for abortion rights in Northern Ireland for decades with your time and/or money. Support grassroots campaigners in America too, yes, but also remind anybody fearing for the women of Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky or Tennessee that people here are already suffering under laws like these.

Repeal wasn’t that long ago. Such an important moment for reproductive freedom will reverberate for a long time to come. We need the grit and magic of that moment now more than ever. We are more powerful than we think. Don’t be silent.

Elizabeth Nelson is an activist with the Belfast Feminist Network