As part of the programme of events for International Women’s Day 2019 WRDA attended a conference on the 8th March. The conference focussed on research into self-managed abortions in Northern Ireland using pills and how the proverbial genie is out of the bottle. It began with Professor Sally Sheldon from the Law School at the University of Kent introducing the law around abortion pills. She highlighted the criminal laws which currently operate in Northern Ireland; the Offences against the Person Act 1861, Rex v. Bourne 1938 and finally the DHSSPSNI Guidance for HSC professionals on termination of pregnancy in Northern Ireland 2016; all of which allow abortion only where the life of the mother is threatened.

Professor Sheldon discussed how self-managed abortions create challenges for existing legal frameworks and essentially ‘how can the state control swallowing?’ it was also argued that criminal prohibitions cannot be justified on the basis of women’s health. The supplying of abortion pills to women in Northern Ireland is more frequently coming from two online collectives with reputable suppliers and accurate information, which operate legally in their base countries. EU free movement provisions can be used as an argument to protect access to abortion pills. One of the collectives reported supplying pills to 1,748 women on the island of Ireland in 2016.

Abortion pills are effective, often easy to obtain and are unlikely to result in complications and therefore can be used without a third party. The criminal prohibitions associated with abortion are difficult to enforce in the case of pills because it is hard for prosecutors to confirm and prove pills have been taken. These prohibitions actually impede public health goals and ignore the evidence of the safety of telemedical abortion services. The current law creates conditions of isolation and secrecy which can be a deterrence from seeking professional healthcare. Prosecutions in NI are selective, indicative of the fact that the law in its current state is unenforceable.

There was also a focus on trends in abortion statistics and public attitudes. The trends show that the number of women accessing abortions in England and Wales has been steadily declining from 1343 in 2007 to peak at 919 in 2017 and of those travelling 66% underwent a surgical procedure rather than a medical one, probably due to the delay in planning and receiving care. The trends also demonstrate that for many women travelling abroad is simply not an option for many reasons e.g.) situations of domestic abuse or caring responsibilities.

The most robust survey of public attitudes to abortion in Northern Ireland is the NI life and times survey. The representative sample of 1200 revealed strong support for abortion reform overall, especially in cases of severe medical illness or threat to the mother’s physical or mental health. There was very little support for criminalisation, with 70% of participants believing abortion is a matter of regulation not criminal law. Those in support of criminalisation are statistically likely to be members of the Democratic Unionist Party, Attend church at least once per month, and are less likely to have a degree. There was similarity in the views of men and women and of Catholics and Protestants respectively.

The CEDAW Committee has previously challenged the UK government with state non-compliance regarding reproductive rights on several occasions (1999, 2008, and 2013) however in 2010, there was a submission to the CEDAW committee under CEDAW Optional Protocol to hold an inquiry into access to abortion in the jurisdiction.  It was granted and in 2018, the results were published. The inquiry stated that the ‘UK can’t invoke internal agreements e.g. Belfast agreement to justify its failure to revise NI laws that violate CEDAW’.

When Participants were asked why they had sought an abortion, 4 out of 5 participants gave at least one reason and 55% gave more than one reason. Another question involved the positives and negatives of seeking a self-managed abortion, these included: being at home, not having to travel, not having to take time off work or rearrange caring responsibilities. Negatives were; the fear of the unknown, the pain and the fact that it is illegal here.

Overall, the findings of this research were supportive of the calls to repeal sections 58 and 59 of the 1861 Offences against the Person Act. They found that there is an urgent need for authorities here to ensure that all women know they can access medical assistance without fear of the police becoming involved. The illegality of abortion doesn’t act as a deterrent but is acutely damaging to women’s physical and mental health. Criminalisation is also not compatible with other social policy developments here e.g. lack of free childcare. The research also found that there will always be women who can’t travel for an abortion. As a result, the two online collectives previously mentioned are putting the power into the hands of the service user by providing more than just a pill (advice and support).


Article by Caitlín Miskimmon (WRDA Intern)