The history of abortion rights in Western countries has generally been measured in giant leaps forward: Roe v Wade. The Abortion Act 1967. These were landmark rulings, granting women long-overdue bodily autonomy and the right to determine their own reproductive functions.
But history also advances in smaller increments: a sympathetic judge here; a successful legal precedent there. Today is a one such historic day for the pro-choice movement in Northern Ireland, although abortion on demand is a long way off. The High Court in Belfast ruled this morning that existing abortion legislation in Northern Ireland—described as "draconian" by Amnesty International—is in contravention of human rights law.
Although Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, the 1967 Abortion Act doesn't apply in this part of the country, where abortions are illegal unless a woman's life is at risk or if there is a severe or permanent risk to her mental or physical health. Today's case was brought by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission to broaden the law to make a provision for abortions in the case of serious fetal malformation, incest, or rape.
The judge presiding over the case, Mr Justice Horner, found existing legislation "incompatible" with the European Convention on Human Rights. Although today's ruling won't have an immediate effect (the Northern Irish government has six weeks to appeal the ruling), it's nonetheless a seismic shift forward. I spoke to Emma Campbell of Alliance for Choice to understand today's events.
"We were at the High Court today because one of our members (the woman named AT in the court documents) made her own submission to the court based on her experience of fatal fetal abnormality," Campbell explains. "She was with us this morning and was incredibly moved that hopefully no other woman will have to endure what she went through. She's actually expecting a baby around Christmas, so the issue is really close to her heart."
AT and Sarah Ewart, who waived her right to anonymity, gave evidence to the court. Both were told their fetuses would not survive: Ewart had to travel to England for an abortion at short notice and in great distress, whilst AT endured the heartbreak of delivering a stillborn baby at 35 weeks. Horner paid tribute to the two women in his ruling, acknowledging how difficult it would have been for them to speak publicly about their experiences.
"It's pleasing to see that a lot of the language Horner used in his ruling today was language we put in our submission," Campbell said. "One thing that he acknowledged was the fact that the current law doesn't stop abortions from happening in Northern Ireland, because women just travel to England—so what's the point?"
Northern Irish women have been travelling to the rest of the UK for abortions since the 1960s. In 2012 alone, 905 Northern Irish women had abortions in England and Wales. Pro-choice activists highlight how this effectively restricts access to wealthier and more educated women who can afford to have the procedure carried out privately (Northern Irish women aren't eligible for NHS abortions), as well as its attendant costs (airfare, hotel stay, taxis). "Women who have money have options, and women who don't have money don't have options," Campbell explains.
Whilst Campbell describes today's ruling as "a huge leap forward for women's rights in Northern Ireland," Alliance for Choice's ultimate aim is to see the 1967 Abortion Act extended to Northern Ireland. A spokeswoman for Marie Stopes International told Broadly that they also wanted to see "all women in the UK...have equal access to legal abortion services, regardless of which country within the UK they live in."
It's disgraceful that we have to prove we're experiencing trauma in order to elicit a compassionate response from lawmakers.
A fierce internecine war swirls around the issue of abortion in Northern Ireland, a nation with a population of only 1.8 million. Campbell volunteers as a clinic escort at Belfast's only Marie Stopes clinic, ushering the tiny fraction of women currently allowed abortions in Northern Ireland past baying crowds of anti-abortion protestors.
Campbell tells me that clinic escorts have experienced escalating physical and verbal abuse in recent months. She attributes this to the overturning of the harassment case against anti-abortion campaigner Bernie Smyth of the group Precious Life. Although dismissed on a technicality, Precious Life has "interpreted this as a green light to harass women coming in and out of the clinic, and one of my fellow escorts was assaulted—although the prosecutor's office isn't willing to take the assault seriously."
Campbell fears more women in Northern Ireland will be subject to abuse. "We're concerned that, as more women use the clinic, more protestors will harass them. It's not okay to stand outside telling them they're the mothers of dead children."
Before speaking to Campbell I'd expected her to be in a triumphalist mood. After all, today's ruling is a massive step forward. But when abortion in Northern Ireland remains a literal case of life and death, there's no room for premature celebration.
"People don't understand this is something women have to deal with on a daily basis. One in three women will have an abortion in their lives. It's disgraceful that we have to prove we're experiencing trauma in order to elicit a compassionate response from lawmakers. Shouldn't compassion always be there in the first place? Isn't that the point of human rights—to treat all people with compassion?"