By Courtney Robinson
Stormont are notorious for never reaching an agreement on anything (except, perhaps, austerity). In the midst of the sectarian bickering, there is an issue where the main parties share common ground. The issue in question is abortion rights. Not one of the five main parties supports free, safe and legal access to abortion for all who want to avail of it. They have collectively blocked the extension of the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland.
With 69% of the population now supporting a liberalisation of our abortion laws, women aren’t letting this issue be swept back under the carpet. Under the Draconian Offences Against the Person Act 1861, a young woman was handed a three month suspended sentence for taking the drugs Mifepristone and Misoprostol, which are on the World Health Organisation’s Essential Medicines list, to induce a safe abortion. This shameful action from the state was met with hundreds taking to the streets across the UK and Ireland. Their message was clear – we demand the charges are dropped and the right to make our own decisions over our own bodies.
It’s in this context that the ‘abortion pill drone’ protest – organised by Women on Web, ROSA and Labour Alternative – came about. The medicines were transported across the border by drone and taken in open defiance of the law. Activists from across Ireland and the globe came together in a bold action that would expose and shame our backward politicians on a huge, international scale. It was an act of defiance to politicians like Deputy First Minister Martin McGuiness, who blasted online access to the medical abortion pill at the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis. It symbolised a show of solidarity between women North and South, both of whom are forced to travel to access reproductive healthcare. It gave awareness that the medical abortion pills available and accessible, you don’t always have to travel. From BBC World Service to Al Jazeera, our draconian law and those who uphold them were exposed.
In a landmark case, Belfast High Court ruled that Northern Ireland’s archaic abortion laws contravene human rights and that terminations should be permitted in cases of fatal foetal abnormality and where pregnancy is the result of sexual crime. The drone action was followed by a protest outside of the High Court, where an appeal against this ruling was being head. Activists – including myself – took the pills in front of police officers. As with the abortion pills train in 2014, there was no attempt to intervene. Similarly in 2015, over 200 pro-choice activists signed an open letter to the PSNI, declaring that we had either taken the abortion pill or procured one from the internet for someone else. The letter received wide coverage, yet the state chose to ignore it.
It is clear that the state does not feel confident about enforcing the law broadly and taking on the pro-choice movement. Instead, they are picking on relatively isolated individuals. We should organise to make medical abortion pills widely available and make the law irrelevant and unworkable, while vociferously defending those who are criminalised. We should look towards the South, where the campaign to repeal the anti-choice eighth amendment to the Constitution and for broader abortion rights has taken shape and is putting pressure on politicians. We need to see more acts of defiance and protest. Keep up the pressure and momentum and get the church and state out of our bodies.
If you or anyone you know needs access to medical abortion pills, visit womenonweb.org.