Abortion Laws: Northern Ireland Women Risk Imprisonment For Using Abortion Pills

In Northern Ireland, where abortion is illegal outside the NHS (Nation Health Service), more than 100 women potentially face jail time for having used an abortion-inducing pill that they purchased over the internet from pro-choice charities, including Women On Web — an online abortion help service for countries where there is no access to “safe abortion service.”

The women openly admitted to the claim in a letter that was signed by all who have either taken the pill or helped procure it. Though the 1861 Offenses Against the Persons Act which makes abortion illegal in most cases, and also makes it a serious offense to help someone procure an abortion, carries a penalty of life imprisonment. Unless there is an extreme circumstance, like the mother’s life is at risk, women can’t get an abortion in Northern Ireland. As a result, many Northern Irish women seek termination elsewhere. Yet the act is issued in reverse for those who manage to secure one, thereby risking a life behind bars. 

Pro-life campaigners in the area are pushing for the prosecution of those women while they themselves call upon assembly members Alban Maginness of the SDLP and Democratic Unionist Paul Girvan to amend Northern Ireland’s criminal justice bill which makes abortion outside the NHS illegal. The publication of the women’s signed letter was a deliberate attempt to halt this amendment, which would also prevent the first and recently opened Marie Stopes clinic in central Belfast from providing non-surgical, early-term procedures. But the women in question are reportedly prepared to fight for their right to elective abortion using the drug, pointing out a clear prejudice under the current guidelines where it is reportedly almost impossible to secure an NHS abortion despite their existing legal entitlement to one.

The letter’s function is like any other petition, to argue widespread acceptance or participation in the procedure, despite the legality of abortion in the province at this time. However, pro-choicers have faced mounting scrutiny over the issue dating back to when, shortly before he was appointed attorney general of Northern Ireland, John Larkin publicly compared abortion to putting a bullet in the back of a baby’s head, according to the Belfast Telegraph.

The current situation concerning the abortion pills reignited the tug-of-war debate over abortion, prompted most recently by the opening of the Marie Stopes clinic – the first private clinic to offer legal abortions to women in Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland. According to the Guardian, the Maginness-Girvan amendment will be debated at Stormont this Tuesday, which could lead to the clinic being shut down, or better yet may cap a conclusion to the debate.