Since the overwhelming referendum result to repeal the 8th Amendment on 26th May 2018, abortion law in Northern Ireland has been under the spotlight. And rightly so. It should appall us that we live with a status quo which sees 28 people a week travel to Great Britain to access abortion services and an unknown number of people take safe but illegal medications to induce an abortion under the risk of prosecution. People in Northern Ireland who use abortion pills or provide them to others are being actively criminalised under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act: this piece of legislation predates the existence of Northern Ireland itself. We cannot simply accept the continued denial of our reproductive autonomy as collateral damage from a lack of devolved government and the Tory-DUP confidence and supply deal.
In February 2018, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) found that the denial of access to abortion services in Northern Ireland amounts to a grave and systematic violation of human rights. In June 2018, a majority of UK Supreme Court justices found that the abortion law in the north of Ireland breaches the ECHR Article 8 (the right to private and family life) rights of women and girls by denying access to abortion in cases of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormality. The case for abortion reform is clear, so why haven’t politicians at Stormont or Westminster acted on it yet?
Some MPs have stated that they feel very sympathetic towards people in Northern Ireland who cannot access abortion, but they ultimately won’t support legislating for the deciminalisation of abortion via Westminster because to do so would “force” a change on the people of Northern Ireland. This argument rests on the false idea that because many elected MLAs have previously opposed abortion reform, the people of the north must agree with the current abortion law. This argument ignores evidence on the evolving views of the NI population: the 2016 NI Life and Times survey found that a majority of the over 1,200 people surveyed were supportive of abortion reform regardless of their party-political affiliation. After the referendum to repeal the 8th Amendment in the Republic of Ireland, public support for abortion reform has increased. It is unconscionable that devolution (which has been suspended at Stormont since January 2017) is regularly used as a shield against calls for human rights compliant law reform in NI, yet the UK government insist that this is just.
In the continued fight for free, safe, legal and local abortion access in the north, we draw strength from the result of the referendum to repeal the 8th Amendment in the Republic of Ireland last May. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar declared that the landslide referendum result in favour of repealing the 8th Amendment was proof that a “quiet revolution” had taken place in Ireland. I and many others disagree. The journey to repeal the 8th Amendment was anything but quiet: the Abortion Rights Campaign brought tens of thousands of people onto the streets demanding repeal of the 8th and access to free, safe and legal abortion years before the referendum date was confirmed. For three decades members of our sister union, the Union of Students in Ireland, campaigned for abortion rights in marches, within its member unions and in the courts. Repeal of the 8th Amendment was made possible by sustained activism and campaigning which forced the issue onto the political agenda and we must take the same approach to abortion reform in the North.
Repeal supporters living in Northern Ireland knew that we probably wouldn’t directly benefit from the repeal of the 8th Amendment but campaigned in solidarity on the basis of our shared struggle for bodily autonomy. Northern Ireland residents are currently charged up to €450 to access abortion services in the Republic of Ireland. (Hopefully Minister for Health Simon Harris will fix that soon, given that he specifically promised free access to abortion for NI abortion seekers. The mandatory three-day waiting period is an unjustifiable barrier to timely access and should also go.)
While we have different laws across three jurisdictions, NUS-USI shares a firm solidarity with students’ unions and student activists in the Republic of Ireland and Great Britain in the ongoing fight for free, safe and legal abortion access. In April 2018, the NUS-USI ‘Home to V8te’ campaign launched to inform and mobilise Irish vote-eligible students studying at UK institutions to travel home to vote in the referendum to repeal the 8th. The campaign received incredible support on a national and local level and illustrated the immense power of the student liberation campaigns working in solidarity for a shared cause. 136 students from institutions across the UK applied successfully for the travel bursary and approximately £7,400 was donated by NUS UK, NUS Scotland and NUS-USI collectively. £7,232.18 of this was spent.
It is impossible to adequately express to all the students and officers involved just how grateful I and the NUS-USI President are for the support, time and money you gave to the Home to V8te campaign. (Special mention goes to the brilliant Hareem Ghani, NUS Women’s Officer 2016-18, who had the idea of a travel bursary for the campaign and co-facilitated it.) Collectively, we assisted 132 students to exercise their democratic right and mobilised and inspired many more in the process. I hope that the success of the Home to V8te campaign will remind us of the revolutionary potential of practicing solidarity within and beyond the student movement and propel us to continue working collectively towards a future in which it is no longer necessary to travel or act in secret to access any form of reproductive healthcare.
Following the referendum, NUS-USI launched the Trust Us campaign, calling for the decriminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland and free, safe, legal and local abortion access. I strongly encourage all students’ unions, officers and students who participated in the Home to V8te campaign to extend the same support to Trust Us: read the campaign brief here and contact NUS-USI to get involved. The fight is far from over.
NUS-USI Women’s Officer 2018-19
If you live in Northern Ireland and need to access an abortion, the most up to date information is available here: http://www.alliance4choice.com/i-need-an-abortion-now
You can make donations to the Alliance for Choice campaign for free, safe, legal and local abortion access in Northern Ireland here: https://localgiving.org/donation/alliance4choice