The fight for Abortion rights in Derry, what next?

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by Victoria Johnston

Access to abortion was due to be available in Northern Ireland from March 31st – due to the Covid-19 outbreak there is currently no treatment in place. The move to have abortion access from March 31st would have put an end to pregnant women from Northern Ireland travelling to the rest of the UK. Legislation has not been put in place for women to take abortion pills at home in Northern Ireland as has been done in the rest of the UK. For now, women are being told to continue travelling to England to access abortion care, despite a lock-down due to the Covid-19 outbreak.

According to data from the Abortion World-Wide report, a pro-life grouping shows that 1990 was the peak year for pregnant people terminating pregnancies in England with 1,855 people travelling from an address in Northern Ireland.

Free Derry corner in December 2018

The lowest numbers seen for women travelling to GB to access abortion care is in the years 1968, the year that abortion came into effect in Great Britain on April, 27 1968 with 122 women travelling to England. Numbers are low for the years 1969 (283) with a jump in the 1971 (648) with no data being available for the year 1970.

However, the next lowest recorded number is recorded in 2016 with 724 travelling to England. This data was further broken down in 2016 by Alliance for Choice and the Abortion Rights Ireland– two activists groups based in Ireland.  They stated that 121 women travelled from Antrim, Armagh, and Derry-Londonderry respectfully in 2016. 120 women from Tyrone and Down respectfully.

Alliance for Choice Derry members at the ‘Derry Girl’s wall’

There was no data available for County Fermanagh. 121 women who travelled did not state their county or were unaccounted for. This number could well include women from Fermanagh or others who may have felt fear of prosecution in providing their address to organisations as in 2016, abortion was criminalised under the Offences Against the Person Act ( 1861)

County Women who travelled for abortion access in 2016
ANTRIM 121
ARMAGH  121
DERRY  121
TYRONE 120
DOWN 120
FERMANAGH  N/A

2018 saw a spike in the number of women in Northern Ireland travelling to access abortion care with 1,053 women travelling to Great Britain. This spike may be due to the announcement in 2017 that the NHS in England and Wales would pay for Northern Irish women’s abortions in England and Wales, with 2018 being the first year this was in operation.

Grainne Teggart, the Northern Ireland Campaign Manager for Amnesty International  welcomed the announcement in 2017 and said:

“This is an important step forward for the rights of women and girls from Northern Ireland being respected when it comes to decisions about their own bodies. However, it does not diminish the urgent need for the UK Government to prioritise ending the inequality Northern Irish women face on abortion. Although health and justice are devolved matters, ensuring that the human rights of all UK citizens are upheld is Westminster’s responsibility.”

Joanne Murphy is an abortion rights activist with Alliance for Choice, Derry. She believes that access to abortion is a fundamental right. She first got involved with Alliance for Choice in 2019 after following the proposed ban on abortion in Alabama which attracted wide-spread media coverage.

Joanne Murphy

She said, “I worked with people from England who had no idea that I can’t access these services where I live. We had no equality under the law. It didn’t seem fair… why should someone from Northern Ireland not be able to access the same services as women from the South who live 5 miles away.”

She has been moved by the “heartbreaking” stories shared online through Alliance for Choice and In Her Shoes – two pro-choice social media pages.  “I had friends who would never have publicly expressed that they had an abortion but since the restrictions were removed, they are coming forward. They aren’t all young women, that’s what the figures don’t show you.”

Joanne continued, her voice dropping. “I know women who left 20 years ago who were married and had other children. Women from here who had an abortion in England or Scotland when they were at university. They (the figures)  don’t show the different types of women. The key is that it is all women  who had to leave- no matter who they are.”

“I’ve had friends tell me I’m wrong, saying ‘how could you do that,” Joanne said as as she recounts the hostility she has faced as an abortion rights activist, “it takes a hell of a lot to open minds, but surveys show, the majority of the people are pro-choice.”

 “I can respect people’s views but we need to understand now. ‘This is your view, this is my view. But, this is the law.’ “They’re definitely trying, I’ll give them that”, she remarks when asked about the moves by pro-life activists to block changes to Northern Ireland’s abortion laws.

Joanne considers the activists who came before her saying, “When October 21st happened, they couldn’t believe it. They fought for so long and never thought they’d see the day. They’ve told their stories, handed themselves to the police, we are so lucky they walked before us”

Time is ticking for MLA’s to make decisions regarding abortion access.
The Guildhall, Derry.
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