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When Abortion isn’t Legal in the UK

Writing: Milena Pek, Olivia Hoynes, & Justin White for #NowForNI

Illustration: Paola Valentina

CW: This article involves discussion of abortion and mental illness.

Before delving into the myriad of mental and physical health problems associated with Northern Irish women undergoing abortions, it’s imperative to understand where we lie on the issue on this isle we call Britain. Even though most are aware that abortion was legalised in England, Wales and Scotland in the 1967 Abortion Act and is yet to be in Northern Ireland, the pitfalls of this island in it’s own abortion policy is still worth mentioning. Today, a woman seeking abortion in Britain still requires two doctors’ approval before doing so, and a woman who undergoes an illegal abortion is still imprisoned. It seems as if Westminster still cannot trust women to make their own decisions regarding their bodies. This is because despite the aforementioned legislation, abortion remains a criminal offence under the Offences Against the Person Act of 1861 yes 1861 - the same act that still applies above all to Northern Ireland. The 1967 Abortion Act only grants exception for this rule to women and medical professionals, for example the two doctors’ law. Therefore when it comes to doctors entering the field of gynecology or obstetrics, many are pushed away from abortions fearing the common prosecution that often comes with the role. Combined with the crisis already facing the NHS, we can not be complacent when regarding Britain’s own legislation on abortion.

Nonetheless, over the Irish Sea in Northern Ireland, women must either travel elsewhere to have abortions or take abortion pills and risk prosecution under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act.

With abortion being illegal in Northern Ireland, online abortion pills have become more prominent; however, online abortion pills can be dangerous with the emergence of online entities selling ineffective drugs. In fact, a research study of online abortion pill suppliers found many drugs to contain less than the indicated amount of active agents. The NHS firmly advises against buying abortion pills online, stressing its illegality and the threat of unsafe drugs. Dangers of unsafe self-induced abortions range from immediate bleeding and cervix tearing to long-term pelvic inflammatory disease and reproductive tract infections. The long list of dangers includes internal infection, blood poisoning, premature deliveries, and genital and abdomen damage. When abortion is not accessible, women will resort to non-advised methods and are at extreme risk to suffer severe complications.

Yet despite these complications, according to the NHS, abortion does not necessarily take a toll on women's mental health, though it can be most likely associated with some increased risk of developing a mental illness or disorder. Nonetheless, whether true or not, I think we can all unequivocally agree that abortion leaves an imprint for the rest of a woman’s life, regardless of her overall mental wellbeing. The recurring questions “What would have happened, if?”, “Did I really need to do that?”, “Am I happy?”, becomes part of a woman’s identity, even if they are just sparks of subconscious thinking. Therefore, all women who are planning to have an abortion should be provided with mental health care throughout the process and supervised thereafter. However, in Northern Ireland women are not only left without such services, but they also have to leave their home and travel across the Irish Sea to an unfamiliar place. Rather Be Home, (@homerather on Twitter) was an anonymous handle that described such an experience, “If we were #home this morning I'd be making pancakes and supervising toddler cracking the eggs. Instead I'm in a strange city, getting breakfast. It's pretty nice tbf. The breakfast I mean. Being tortured by your own country is fucking horrendous.”

These women can’t or don’t wish to give a birth for different reasons. Yet what connects them all is that if they could do so safely and legally in their own country, they would not need to travel, they would not need to endure these physical and mental hardships, and lastly, their future selves would not need to additionally ponder on, or even suffer from such an experience.

This article was written by members representing the Now for Northern Ireland working group, a subgroup of the Amnesty International Society at the University of Edinburgh. If you would like to get involved in their efforts to change legislation in Northern Ireland you can join their facebook group here:

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