A Missing Link: British Attitudes towards Abortion in Ireland and Northern Ireland

by Eleanor White

After the recent general election and with the Tories now planning to go into coalition with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), there has been a lot of rightful outrage about the DUP and finally some long awaited concern about Northern Irish politics in the UK.

While stereotypically it is often thought that Catholics are the heavy handed ones when it comes to women’s reproductive rights, it may come as a surprise to those that don't know much about Ireland/Northern Ireland, that people from Protestant backgrounds can just be as anti choice as their Catholic brethren.

The Northern Irish ‘pro life’ group ‘Precious Life’, at the launch of their campaign ‘NOT IN OUR NAME’ at Stormont in 2003, had Mary Muldoon from the Social Democratic Labour Party (SDLP) and Iris Robinson from the DUP. Interestingly, whilst the DUP are an incredibly conservative party in favour of the 6 counties of Ulster in Northern Ireland remaining part of the UK, the SDLP consider themselves to be a social democratic party that's for the reunification of Ireland. While many individual members of the SDLP are pro choice, the party itself is a ’pro life’ party.

They unveiled Precious Life's campaign billboard in opposition to the guidelines on abortion that were issued by the Department of Health in January of that year. Precious Life said they were ‘greatly encouraged’ by the cross-party support for their campaign. Bernadette Smyth, the main figurehead from Precious Life, said that she was ‘greatly encouraged by this display of cross-party support. It shows that, after more than 30 years, opposition to abortion is still one of the few issues that unite the Unionist and Nationalist parties’.

It's slightly surreal how the main thing that unifies those from Unionist and Republican backgrounds in Precious Life is their idea that forced pregnancy is the best thing for those dealing with an unwanted pregnancy. Even today some of their most active members who do their regular street stalls near the Marie Stopes Clinic, where you can get the abortion pill, come from all political and religious backgrounds in Northern Ireland. From those that are active members of the Democratic Unionist Party, the Ulster Unionist Party to the SDLP and devout Catholics who are part of various secretive sects.

Outside the Marie Stopes clinic, many women who may or may not be going into the the clinic are regularly harassed. And as it's a Marie Stopes clinic, they do more than just provide abortions; they also do STD checks, contraceptive consultations, vasectomies and offer a wide variety of counselling services, so harassing any prospective clientele that might be getting anything else bar from having an abortion is also preventing people from accessing other basic healthcare services. This clinic is also the only clinic on the island of Ireland that provides abortions legally meaning those from the Republic of Ireland can also access legal abortions there.

While in Northern Ireland there’s the NHS and people pay their taxes to fund it, you can't access abortion from it meaning women are forced to travel to England, Scotland and Wales to access abortion care and have to pay for it out of their own pocket, even though they live in the UK. The vast majority of clinics in the rest of the UK that provide abortion services also have an Irish price range, which takes in things such as travel and accommodation. These Irish price ranges are for both those from the Republic and Northern Ireland.

In 1979 the taoiseach of the time Charles Haughey introduced the Health (Family Planning) Act – which would stringently regulate contraception. Speaking in the Dáil he said it was ‘an Irish solution to an Irish problem’. Little did he know that ‘the Irish solution to an Irish problem’ would also be a whole island problem when it came to abortion.

In recent years a lot has been revealed about the Catholic Mother and Baby homes that existed on either side of the island of Ireland. While they are generally seen as a Catholic solution used to oppress and imprison women, there were also Protestant Mother and Baby Homes.

This idea of imprisoning people and oppressing them for personal issues they had no control over concerning societal prejudices first came from the Victorian workhouses that were built by British rule, to imprison the poor, introduced by the Irish Poor Laws of 1838 which were a series of Acts of Parliament intended to address social instability due to widespread and persistent poverty on the island. The Irish Poor Laws were very closely modelled on the English Poor Law of 1834.

Which is to say, these Magdalene Laundries and Children homes weren't just an Irish Catholic invention, used to imprison women who didn't fall into the Madonna complex - they were modelled on the Victorian workhouses and introduced by British imperialism.

It’s estimated that 200 children were born between 1922 and 1949, at the Bethany Home in Dublin alone, an evangelical institution for unmarried women and their children that fulfilled the same social role as its Catholic brethren i.e to stem the contamination to the body politic that were these women and children - by keeping the women and their unwanted offspring far away from prying public eyes. While these Protestant Mother and Baby homes haven't been investigated as much as the Catholic Mother and Baby Homes, there were most definitely children that were buried in unmarked graves in them, similarly to the Tuam Mother and Baby home.

The institutional sexism that women face in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland are incredibly similar in a lot of ways. Abortion in Northern Ireland is illegal under the Offences against the Person Act of 1861, where you can technically face life imprisonment for having an illegal abortion, or being in possession of medical abortifacients. While in the Republic of Ireland abortion is illegal under the 8th amendment in the Irish constitution, the same legislation - the Offences against the Person Act of 1861 - was in place in the Republic of Ireland until it was repealed by the Protection of Life During Pregnancies act of 2013.

This piece of legislation was brought in after much national and international outcry over the death of Savita Halappanavar in Co. Galway October 2012, who requested an abortion while she was miscarrying. But while the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act of 2013 allows for terminations in case of suicide and incest, you have to be reviewed by a panel of doctors and prove to them that you need an abortion.

Interestingly I feel that it’s the Offences Against the Person Act of 1861, which also criminalized male homosexuality in England and Wales until 1967, Scotland 1980, Northern Ireland 1982 and in the Republic of Ireland in 1993, shows how truly ‘unique’ our ‘special relationship’ is with each other due to colonisation and imperialism.

The Proclamation of the Irish Republic 1916 states that there is a guarantee of ‘religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens’ - this was the first mention of gender equality, given that at the time Irish women under British law were not allowed to vote. It was a truly a revolutionary document as it also stated a promise of ‘cherishing all the children of the nation equally’, meaning that working class inner city Catholics in Dublin/Derry would get treated the same as upper middle class Anglo Irish Protestants in rural Laois/Fermanagh and vice versa.

But here we are in 2017 where the only equal thing with both sides of Protestant and Catholic fundamentalism on the island of Ireland, is forcing women to continue with unwanted pregnancies.

I’ve found it surreal since moving to the UK how little Brits actually know about absolutely anything to do with Ireland and Northern Ireland - let alone Northern Irish politics - given that we were colonised by you for +900 years and continue to live with the effects of British colonisation every single day.

And it’s interesting how the DUP is now a nationwide talking point, post election, when before no one seemed to care about how DUP members have been terrorising people from Catholic backgrounds and POC in Northern Ireland for decades. Let alone all their very genuine and well documented terrorist connections. All this rage is rightful but where is it concerning Operation Demetrius, the Irish hunger strike of 1981, the Shankill Butchers, the Dublin and Monaghan Bombings of 1974?

But now that we have your attention, please stand in solidarity with the thousands of women forced to travel from Ireland every single year to access safe and legal abortions.

Please donate to the Abortion Support Network that gives grants to women and others who can’t afford the cost of traveling to the UK for an abortion and paying for it.

Please donate to, and support the efforts of, the Abortion Rights Campaign - the largest grassroots pro-choice organisation in Ireland.

Please support Alliance for Choice, which is an activist organisation which campaigns for free, safe, legal abortion in Northern Ireland.

Please support the London Irish Abortion Rights Campaign which is a London based organisations whose main aim is to again advocate for free, safe, legal abortion in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland and to bring attention to the thousands of women travelling to the UK to access basic healthcare.


Photo: William Murphy


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