Viewing Northern Ireland's abortion ruling as 'disappointing' fails women

Women seeking abortions at the Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast, Northern Irelands's first private abortion clinic, are met with anti-abortion demonstrators who campaign outside the building.Reuters

In a landmark ruling on 30 November, a judicial review found the grounds for abortion – currently only allowed in cases where a woman's life is at risk or there is serious risk to her health – should be extended in Northern Ireland.

Mr Justice Horner said women who were the victims of rape or incest and cases of fatal foetal abnormality were entitled to exemptions in the law and that the existing abortion legislation is in breach of human rights. The 1967 Abortion Act, which covers England, Scotland and Wales, does not apply to Northern Ireland.

The ruling follows years of campaigning from numerous organisations including Amnesty International. Individuals who have been personally affected by the current legislation, such as Sarah Ewart, have also called for changes to the law. She was forced to travel to England for a termination when a scan revealed that the foetus she was carrying had a condition incompatible with life outside the womb.

Currently, the law relating to abortion in Northern Ireland is the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act. This means that women face up to 14 years in prison for having an illegal abortion and that anyone helping them do so also faces a lengthy jail term. In 2013/14, 23 terminations were carried out in Northern Ireland, but thousands more women ended a pregnancy by either travelling abroad to do so, or buying abortion pills online.

Over the years, this has meant that travelling to pay for a private abortion is an option open only to those who are financially better off, while those who order pills – and those who help them do so – risk prosecution.

Northern Ireland's Attorney General John Larkin said he was "profoundly disappointed" by the decision, and this has been echoed by Christian organisations. Despite acknowledging the sensitivity of the issue and the need for compassion for all involved, some faith-based groups have reiterated their stance that abortion is an undesirable outcome and that the rights of the unborn child are paramount.

In recent years faith-based organisations have been criticised for poor and often misleading handling of crisis pregnancy care. However, conversations about abortion are increasingly seeing Christians call for a more wide-ranging 'culture of life' that talks not simply about banning abortion and stopping women from accessing reproductive healthcare, but also looks holistically at counselling, financial support, welfare, support for women both in and who have left abusive relationships, sex education, and more.

This sort of holistic approach to crisis pregnancy care – including perinatal hospice care – has been mentioned in the last week as Christian organisations have registered their disappointment with the ruling, but the fact remains that many women, even after considering those options, do not want to continue with a pregnancy. If this is the case, it is far more preferable that they can access a termination legally and safely.

A woman who who feels desperate enough to terminate a pregnancy may very well go to any lengths to do so. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that every year, 20 million women experience an unsafe abortion, with 68,000 women dying from complications related to such procedures. That's around 13 per cent of all maternal deaths, rising to almost one in five maternal deaths in some regions of the world.

We are all well aware of the stories surrounding the history of abortion and the sometimes horrifying methods used when women have been unable to access safe medical care or feel forced into 'backstreet' procedures. One of the reasons this has often been the case is the prohibitive cost of treatment, something that women in Northern Ireland know too well.

One woman, who now helps others access abortion pills by ordering them to 'safe' addresses for collection, has explained why she has chosen to do this. "It wouldn't be great to go to prison," she said. "But at the same time I'd rather have that hanging over me than wondering whether women are going to drink bleach, or throw themselves down the stairs."

The cost of abortion for Northern Irish women means that they often end up delaying the procedure while they save up the money they need, keeping their situation secret from friends and family, and living with shame. One very public example of this shaming is the fact that as women attend appointments at the Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast, they are helped into the building by escorts as anti-abortion demonstrators shout at them, waving placards and calling them murderers.

Over the past week, those registering their disappointment with the ruling have been careful to acknowledge that abortion is an 'emotive' subject; a nod to the heartbreaking and difficult situations faced by women like Sarah Ewart. No doubt, also, a nod to the fraught situation surrounding access to reproductive healthcare in the USA, where once more, violence in the name of a so-called "pro-life" stance is making headlines.

Too often, the conversation on abortion turns away from the life of the unborn child to the perceived failings of women. One such example is the idea that those who have abortions don't 'understand the consequences'; that they don't know their own minds. When women are not trusted, believed and supported, when a climate of fear and shame exists around something that often forces them to make difficult decisions – physically, emotionally, financially and yes, even spiritually – I don't believe we will ever make great leaps towards a more holistic 'culture of life'. The very reasons that women end pregnancy are defined by shame, societal taboos, desperation and the judgmental reactions of others. It may be 'disappointing' and smack of one life being prioritised over another, but to fail to tackle the problems affecting women's lives deprioritises half the population.

It is highly likely that abortion law in Northern Ireland will continue to be heavily restrictive. Women will still travel overseas and buy pills on the internet. And the realities of their lives will, inevitably, be dismissed as a mere detail in a moral battle where there are no winners.

Hannah Mudge writes about feminism and faith and is one of the founders of the Christian Feminist Network. She works in digital communications and fundraising for an international development organisation. Follow her on Twitter @boudledidge