"Hey, you legislators," activists chanted. "We are not your incubators!" Flanked by automatic weapons, armored vehicles and graphic pro-life imagery, a small robot—operated by a teenager in the Netherlands—delivered abortion pills to a group of pro-choice activists in the center of Belfast last Thursday.
The women from Northern Irish campaign group ROSA (Reproductive Rights Against Oppression, Sexism, and Austerity) had planned the action to challenge Northern Ireland's strict abortion laws, six days after the Republic of Ireland voted to legalize abortion. For many in Northern Ireland—the only country in northern Europe where abortion remains criminalized, punishable by lengthy prison sentences—it's time for change.
In an event organized by ROSA and supported by the Dutch-based Women on Web, an organization that supplies abortion pills to women in countries where abortion is banned, activists swallowed abortion pills in Belfast to protest Northern Ireland's abortion laws, before traveling across Northern Ireland on the aptly named Bus4Choice.
"They know the momentum in the south has spread here," 29-year-old Louise, whose surname we have withheld for security reasons, explained while in Lisburn, a town close to Belfast. "We don't have the same rights as other women on this island and I personally feel a lot of anger about that." New to ROSA, Louise was questioned by police earlier that day after taking the abortion pill in protest.
While the abortion pill is safe and widely prescribed by doctors in mainland Britain, it's illegal under the 1861 Offences Against The Person Act to take it in Northern Ireland with the intention of terminating a pregnancy. And in recent years this law has been used to prosecute women who have procured the pill to terminate pregnancies: In 2016, a 21-year-old Northern Irish woman was given a suspended prison sentence after pleading guilty to buying pills over the internet to end her pregnancy.
Cerys Falvey, 21, highlighted how police have raided the homes of activists accused of illegally importing abortion pills. "They raided one guy's house and seized his laptop," she said. "It's really crazy." Organizations like Women on Web often deliver packages of abortion pills to Northern Ireland. But under Northern Irish law, women could potentially face life in prison for taking abortion pills while pregnant.
As the activists organized into formation and and donned their red Handmaid's Tale-inspired costumes, I chatted to locals in Lisburn outside the offices of the ultra-conservative Democratic Unionist Party, where ROSA plan to protest.
"Why are they bothering with the DUP?" one young man said as the activists arrived, referring to the DUP's anti-abortion, anti-gay rights stance. "They hate everything! You'd have better luck talking to the wall".
Lisburn is a historically DUP stronghold, but the conservative party may be losing the next generation. Social attitudes across Northern Ireland are changing: and abortion rights are at the forefront of the popular consciousness. According to a 2016 Amnesty International poll, 75 percent of the people believed that abortion should be legal in cases of rape, incest and fatal fetal abnormalities.
As the activists chanted and shouted their demands down a megaphone, DUP politician Jim Wells spoke to media across the road under a giant mural of American cartoon character Top Cat. Known for his conservative values and anti-gay-marriage stance, Wells was forced to step down as Minister for Health after linking child abuse to same-sex relationships. “We’ve saved the lives of 102,000 people in Northern Ireland by not having abortion,” Wells told reporters over the din of feminist chanting.
Belfast-based ROSA activist Eimear, who preferred not to disclose her name or age for privacy reasons, criticized Northern Ireland’s politicians for trying to splinter social movements.
“Our politicians are trying to divide the movement down sectarian lines," Eimear explained. "So the DUP say they'll speak for Protestant women and Sinn Fein (Northern Ireland and Ireland's republican party) say they'll speak for Republican women.” As Northern Ireland remains divided into unionist Protestant, and republican Catholic enclaves, those pushing for social change have to navigate complicated and highly sectarian waters.
As we left Lisburn an elderly, well-dressed woman asked the activists what they were protesting. When they explained it was for abortion rights, she clapped her hands in glee. "Fair play to ye girls!” she shouted.
A police car marked our arrival in Cookstown where the women prepared to protest outside the offices of republican party Sinn Fein. While nominally more pro-choice than other political parties in Northern Ireland, some criticize the party for its failure to commit to the rights of women for fear of jeopardising their anti-choice voter base. For many, the party’s pro-choice stance boils down to political expediency.
As the women pulled down their white handmaid's wings and marched to the nondescript Sinn Fein building, I spoke to a bemused mother and daughter. “I’m pro-choice and no more about it,” the mother says. Meanwhile, her daughter looked mournfully at the protesters, gestured to her three small children, and said she’ll fight for "the rights of babies”.
Not everyone agrees with ROSA's direct action methods. Some have criticized ROSA's approach, saying it endangers vulnerable women by putting unwanted media attention and police focus on the importing of abortion pills into Northern Ireland. "We have to be extremely careful and thoughtful with precarious access to healthcare. Actions with zero strategy behind them are not tactical. They are publicity stunts," Claire Brophy of the Irish-affiliated Abortion Rights Campaign tweeted earlier this week.
Wearied women slept on the bus before we arrived into our last destination, Derry. As prepared to go home, I asked 41-year-old Tracy Berry, from Belfast, about how she thought the day went. We walked to Derry’s Peace Flame, a symbol of how far the once war-torn city has come.
"It’s been so exciting," Berry enthused. "I feel proud that I'm doing something to help the women of our country who continue to suffer under these laws. It’s all about breaking barriers, making choices and moving forward. It’s a new chapter for us.”