The conviction of a woman in Belfast for inducing an abortion using pills bought on the internet made abortion an election issue in the North for the first time.
While she got a suspended sentence, she now has a criminal conviction which will affect her ability to travel to America, or Australia and exclude her from some jobs.
Everyone, even the judge who sentenced her, said that she was on trial because she was poor. She had tried to save up the money to travel to England for a legal abortion, but she couldn’t. So she did what hundreds of others do every year and ordered pills from the internet for a safe, but illegal, abortion at home.
The outcry over the prosecution and conviction was such that no politician has been able to say that they believe she should have been prosecuted. As the topic of abortion is raised at every hustings and every radio/TV debate, it’s been wonderful to see politicians squirming as they try to keep to their anti-abortion stances while saying the law should not be enforced.
The DUP, SDLP and Sinn Féin all describe themselves as anti-abortion, although SF thinks the law should allow abortion in cases where the woman is a victim: fatal foetal abnormalities and when the pregnancy is a result of rape. The UUP and Alliance have a free vote on the issue, but only People Before Profit and the Greens trust women and support a woman’s right to choose.
While in the past only anti-abortionists raised the question of abortion on the doorsteps, now People Before Profit canvassers are congratulated on taking a strong stance on the issue. Even people who are ambivalent on abortion say they trust PBP candidates because they are honest about their position, unlike the mainstream politicians.
The powers-that-be must regret the decision to prosecute women for getting abortion pills. As we go to press, another woman is set to appear in court just 6 days before the election. She is a mother charged with obtaining the pills for her teenage daughter under the totally out-of-date law that governs abortion in the North.
The law dates back to 1861; the Offences Against the Person Act was passed while Queen Victoria was still young, before the light bulb was invented, before trade unions were legalised, before women had the vote. It says any woman causing her own abortion is liable to life imprisonment and anyone who procures any “poison or other noxious substance” for the purposes of abortion faces up to five years in prison.
Since March 2013, campaigners in the North have twice published open letters admitting to breaking the law. When the mother who got pills for her daughter was charged last June, the second open letter was published. Some 200 women and about 30 men admitted to having procured pills over the internet for someone, just as the mother had for her daughter. This act of solidarity was signed by 230 people; hundreds more wanted to sign but couldn’t because of work or family.
The truth is that states can no longer control women’s ability to end pregnancies safely. The pills obtained over the internet are the same as the ones used by the NHS for legal abortions. They are incredibly safe; safer even than penicillin. Statistically, five times more men have died from taking Viagra than women have died taking abortion pills.
As long as they are obtained from one of the not-for-profit sites like WomenHelp.org, the pills bring on a miscarriage up to 9-10 weeks of pregnancy. Women manage early miscarriages themselves all the time, they are very common in the first few weeks. This is why happily pregnant people don’t tell too many people until after 12 weeks.
While the Health Products Regulatory Authority seize all drugs, even vitamins, coming into the South (the websites have ways of getting around this), packages are not seized in the North. So, it is hard to see how the state can stop women from taking control of their own lives by getting the pills over the internet and taking them in the privacy of their own homes.
It is even harder to see how they can justify prosecuting women when benefit caps mean that mothers will not get any benefits, not even child benefit, for a third or subsequent child.
The logjam keeping the North stuck in the 19th century in relation to abortion has been broken. Every time a woman is prosecuted, there will be more protests, more difficult questions for politicians who prefer turning a blind eye than to bringing in a law that deals with the realities of women’s lives. Change is coming.