There was a bit of confusion during the week regarding Jezebel’s article on the first abortion clinic to open in Ireland – unsurprising since most of us over here are pretty confused, too. I’ve been doing a bit of research so let’s see if we can get it all straight.
The clinic is to open this Thursday in Belfast. As it stands, the legal rights of women in need of abortion in Ireland are widely contested and infuriatingly vague. The country is divided into two separate political regions – Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom while the Republic is its own country. When it comes to abortion, however, the North is closer to the South in legislation than it is to the rest of the UK.
While abortion is legal up to 24 weeks in England, Scotland and Wales, there is no clear legislation in Northern Ireland. Abortion is legal where there is an immediate threat to the woman’s life, but attempts to introduce guidelines to clarify the permitting circumstances have been rejected.
Similarly in the Republic we are on the 20th anniversary of a ruling that established the right of women to termination when her life is at risk due to the pregnancy, but our government refuses to legislate for this ruling despite demands to do so from the European Court of Human Rights. In this way, we’re still in limbo.
The result of all this is that women both North and South of the border effectively have three options if they require an abortion. If they meet the requirements they can try to obtain a termination through their ordinary health-care provider, but due to the lack of guidelines it is very risky for medical professionals to perform abortions even if a woman seemingly meets the criteria. It is hard to know how many succeed in their attempt, as if such procedures are performed they are not recorded as such – instead they are simply listed as miscarriages. More often women travel to obtain a legal abortion from private clinics in England, at great personal cost. Last year at least 5,000 did just this. Many others procure abortion-inducing medication illegally over the internet, accepting all the risks such self-treatment entails.
With the arrival of this new private clinic, run by Marie Stopes International, women in Northern Ireland will have unambiguous access to medical terminations up to the 9th week of pregnancy once they are deemed to have met the stringent criteria by two doctors. They will be afforded non-judgemental, compassionate support, and the security of knowing that they will not be pressured into continuing with a dangerous pregnancy.
Those in the Republic will also have access to the clinic, removing the necessity for sick women to travel overseas, sometimes alone and usually in secret, as Belfast is a mere train journey away. While the procedure is still expensive at £450, they will not incur the additional travel and accommodation costs which can be prohibitive in these short-notice situations.
There is huge demand for safe, legal access to abortion in Ireland, evidenced by a massive pro-choice demonstration in Dublin last month. There is also vehement opposition to women’s choice, due largely to the strong Catholic forces that still hold sway in this country. Pro-life lobby groups shout at men from billboards that “Abortion tears her life apart” – the woman in question being implicitly denied her political voice as well as personal choice. We have a long road ahead of us on both sides of the border, but this is a brave first step. We will have to work hard to maintain it.
What do you think of these moves to make abortion accessible in Northern Ireland? Leave us a comment below and share your thoughts.