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How We Won the Right to Choose

Coming hot on the heels of Dublin’s repeal of anti-abortion laws, decriminalization in the North is a decisive victory for Irish feminists. The church and the state are losing their control over our bodies — but we still need to make abortion legal, safe, and free.

Members of pro choice group Alliance for Choice make their way to Stormont on October 21, 2019 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Charles McQuillan / Getty

October 22 marked a decisive victory in the North of Ireland, as abortion was finally decriminalized. This news will surely have passed many people by — after all, in national as in international media, the North is almost only ever “represented” by the bigots in the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). But last week, this stridently anti-choice party was finally overruled by the Westminster parliament. Its move to decriminalize abortion in the North came fifty years after a similar step was taken on the British mainland. Yet this success especially owes to decades of heroic struggles waged by Irish feminists.

The specific provisions criminalizing abortion had been passed by the imperial British Parliament in 1861, and until recent years remained law in both jurisdictions on the island of Ireland. Despite the part-legalization of abortion in Britain in 1967, it remained criminalized in the state known as Northern Ireland, which the British partitioned from the South in 1920. This situation did change, in part, in May 2018, as an overwhelming referendum vote in the South repealed the state’s constitutional ban on abortion (known as the Eighth Amendment). Yet there was no similar shift in the North.

This was the situation that the North is Now campaign sought to challenge. It defended the right to choose both for women and for the trans, gender-queer, nonbinary, and intersex people whose reproductive and health care rights are so often erased and misunderstood. With last week’s change in the law, a victory has been won for our right to control our own bodies. Yet as we shall see, the fight to guarantee free, safe, and legal abortions across the island of Ireland is not yet over.

Image courtesy of Derry artist Shannon Patterson. Her artwork documenting the reproductive rights protests across Ireland can be found on www.instagram.com/rose_may_scribble.

How We Fought

All-Ireland campaigning on issues of reproductive rights and women’s and minority rights have long existed, even before the British border partitioned the island. Although partition in 1920 created autonomous legislatures in North and South, both societies were dominated by a conservative and patriarchal culture that shared similar approaches to bodily autonomy.

We ourselves are from Derry, in the North, and our activism has always extended across the border, supporting people in neighboring counties and especially in the more rural areas of Donegal. For most of us in the North, campaigning in the South for the repeal of the Eighth Amendment was, therefore, a natural and obvious conclusion.

Although activists from the North were an integral part of the Repeal the 8th Campaign, its victory also brought new urgency and confidence to their demands for change in their lives. We celebrated the repeal victory specifically because the win for the South was also a win for the North and everyone on the island of Ireland. However, a crucial difference that is worth reflecting on here, is how the change came about in the North — and its relationship to the failed state of “Northern Ireland.”

Stormont’s Failure and Westminster’s Opportunity

The Good Friday Agreement (GFA) which tasked the autonomous Stormont government to rule the North was signed back in 1998 — when we were still at school. Our generation were told to be grateful for the rights and opportunities bestowed on us by this historic arrangement. In fact, the GFA has many flaws, which we have written about elsewhere. One of the biggest betrayals in this “peace deal” was that it allowed the “New Northern Ireland” to retain among violent abortion laws dating back to 1861, before women even had the vote. Indeed, articles 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act could mean life imprisonment for anyone procuring an abortion and anyone supplying the means to induce one.

Over the century since partition, Ireland, both North and South, has suffered from deep social conservatism — due in large part to the role of the Church in the state. Even for those growing up in more recent years, attending deeply religious schools that dictated that abortion is a sin, while knowing that many classmates had gone through a termination, created a culture of shame and stigma. Yet whether abortion is legal or not, people will strive for control over their own bodies and seek termination for unwanted pregnancies.

For decades before people of our generation became involved, campaigners and activists set up communities to provide support for those who needed an abortion. Still, for many — particularly young women with a limited support network — having an abortion meant flying to England unannounced, taking pills in secret, or more drastic measures like drinking too much in the hope it would cause a miscarriage. All this continued into the 2000s, under the Agreement and government in which we were supposed to put our faith to deliver our civil rights. But was abundantly clear that Irish society had progressed at a much greater speed than the laws would recognize.

The pro-choice movement consists of incredible activists, trying to provide support for anyone deciding whether or not to keep their pregnancy. Indeed, without established groups like these, and the tireless efforts they have made, our generation would have found it impossible to find our voice and campaign for reproductive rights. Reproductive rights have also advanced furthest when part of an international movement — indeed, it was not until the Repeal the 8th Movement got momentum that many people in Britain realized that the North of Ireland even had such restrictive abortion laws.

Yet no solution was coming from within the North’s own institutions, which remain deadlocked. Indeed, by the time this new legislation came to pass, Stormont had not been sitting for over 1,000 days. This is the longest period any “democratic” government has not been in session, and the situation looks unlikely to change in the near future. With the reactionary Stormont assembly dissolved, activists had no choice but to take their demands to Westminster. Here, the context of Brexit and the weak Tory government created an opening where a majority of Westminster MPs were prepared to initiate legislation — through amendments to a parliamentary bill — that would decriminalize abortion and legalize equal marriage in the North.

What Next for Ireland?

While such changes were hugely popular in Ireland, there is no appetite for a more general move towards direct Westminster rule over the North. While Stormont politicians are clearly untrustworthy, leaving power in the hands of civil servants — or direct rule — is both unsustainable and woefully undemocratic. The new legislation can, then, only be a short-term solution to the historic problem of misrule in Ireland. Indeed, even abortion rights are yet to be won for good. While decriminalization is clearly to be welcomed, until March 2020 there will be no local provision of abortion services in the North.

Westminster has guaranteed the National Health Service (NHS) will now fund appointments for those with BT postcodes (as well as their travel and accommodation). Yet there remain social, political, and medical barriers that mean abortion will still not be free, safe, and available in the North in the foreseeable future. Moreover, just as our struggle has always been all-Ireland, our solutions should be, too. Care for those on border towns and villages in particular should not be contingent on the jurisdictions of North and South. For those who live in rural west Donegal (on the South side of the border) but who use Derry (just across the border, in the North) for their everyday needs, it would make more sense for them to get support there instead of further South.

Since the South repealed the Eighth Amendment in May 2018, there have been huge steps forward — including services being rolled out within a year. However, despite the incredible support for the change in last year’s referendum — with over 66 percent backing repeal — the hangover of stigma from a Catholic society affects people both socially and professionally. Doctors are still awaiting full guidance and full provision across Ireland — with rural areas particularly lagging behind. The waiting period between seeing your doctor and having the termination also brings stigma for those who seek an abortion — especially given the strict time limit of under three months.

Keep Up the Fight

Indeed, the battle for the right to choose is not over yet. While in the South, Repeal enjoyed a broad base of support, even now none of the major parties in the North entirely support the right to choose. This will cause problems in the future if Stormont ever does establish itself — for we know all too well that when our bodies are still up for debate, they will remain political bargaining chips. And we also know that neither Stormont nor Westminster has Irish people’s interests at heart, and neither will it legislate in their interests. It is for this reason that the campaign for free, safe, and legal abortions must continue, beyond the current change in the law.

What we can rely on to win our rights is progressive, grassroots movements. No longer can we be accused of being backwards insular nation. Irish people, North and South, have proven themselves to be outward looking, internationalist, and ready to take to the streets to fight injustice. Social conservatism is in retreat and every single win we have had across the country we have gained from marching in the streets, door knocking, and petitioning. The Church, long dominant over Irish education, is slowly acknowledging that it will need to release its grip. Such is the strength of our movement, even center-right parties are being pushed to accept policies that previously would have been anathema to them.

Building our movement horizontally has made it inclusive and internationalist, connecting our struggles to global issues. And where our movements make progress, they establish the conditions where a new type of political system can emerge across Ireland. Such an Ireland would surely be worlds away from Partition and the stopgap agreement from the 1990s that muted women’s rights and progressive voices.