Three women handed themselves in at a Northern Irish police station on Monday evening hoping to be arrested for procuring abortion pills, in protest at the country's restrictive laws.
To the cheers of pro-choice campaigners standing outside, Diana King, 71, Colette Devlin, 68, and Kitty O'Kane, 69, reported to Strand Road police station in Derry and gave officers a statement saying they had received mifepristone or misoprostol pills for women too afraid to have them delivered to their homes.
The drugs can safely induce an abortion up to nine weeks into a pregnancy, but are illegal to take without a doctor's consent anywhere in the UK.
In England, Scotland, and Wales, women can be prescribed the drug or receive a surgical abortion on the NHS, but in Northern Ireland all abortion is illegal except when a woman's life is at risk or there is a serious or permanent risk to her mental or physical health. Abortion is not allowed in the case of fatal foetal abnormalities, rape, or incest.
Northern Irish women can travel to the UK to get an abortion, but are not eligible to receive one on the NHS so need to have £1,000 to £2,000 ($1,500 to $3,000) to spend on travel, accommodation, and private treatment.
"We do now have one law for the rich and one law for the poor," said King in a statement outside the police station, reported the Derry Journal. "If you can raise the £1,000 to £2,000 to travel to GB [Great Britain] for a legal abortion no-one will bother you, but if you access the nine-week abortion pills online for £60, there's a climate of fear resulting from Stormont [the Northern Ireland Assembly]and the DPP [Director of Public Prosecutions] hounding women who are already at their most vulnerable.
"I don't want to believe our politicians will let this continue, but I fear they will, so it is up to us to keep campaigning."
The retired social worker, who has been campaigning for years to have the UK's 1967 Abortion Act extended to Northern Ireland, told the Guardian she would tell the authorities she had not committed any offence because the drugs are not "poisonous substances, but are seen by the World Health Organisation as essential medicines." The women knew going to jail was a possibility, she said, "but we will be saying that we don't think that we have done anything wrong."
A Facebook post uploaded while the women were being questioned, reported by the BBC, said "People handing themselves in highlights the unworkability of the law. It lays bare the hypocrisy of the government and pressures the state to scrap it.
"If the police wish to criminalize one woman for a crime that so many of us have committed, then there can be no exception to the law, we must be arrested as well… Prisons would be filled to the brim if the law was actually enforced."
The women were questioned for about three hours before being released pending a report to the Public Prosecution office, said the BBC.
Last June more than 200 people signed an open letter stating they had either taken abortion pills or helped women access abortion pills in Northern Ireland, and they were willing to be arrested.
Police took no action, which is why King, Devlin, and O'Kane have stepped forward, said the Guardian — seeing themselves as good candidates to take proactive action as they no longer have jobs which could be adversely impacted by a criminal record.
There were 16 abortions performed in Northern Irish hospitals last year according to Stormont government figures. More than 800 Northern Irish women traveled to the UK for the procedure, according to statistics from Britain's Department of Health.
Follow Miriam Wells on Twitter: @missmbc