Robots circumvent Northern Ireland's total abortion ban
Just days ago Ireland voted to legalize abortion, but in the country to the north, it remains illegal in almost all circumstances to terminate a pregnancy. Northern Irish women are unable to end their pregnancies unless their health or life is at stake. Rape, incest, and fetal abnormalities are not considered lawful exceptions, and anyone who carries out an abortion risks being locked up for life. Even so, pro-choice activists are finding ways to protest and reach women who want or need an abortion regardless.
On Thursday, a coalition of domestic and international activists drew attention to the continuing restrictions on the right to choose: Women in Belfast took abortion pills, which had been delivered by robot from the Netherlands, in front of the city’s main court buildings.
“I have taken this in defiance of the extremely outdated, medieval, anti-choice laws that exist in Northern Ireland,” socialist activist Eleanor Crossey Malone told The Independent after she swallowed the pill. “We are not willing in the wake of the [Irish] repeal referendum to be left behind any longer.”
The British Supreme Court is expected to rule next week on whether Northern Ireland’s total prohibition on termination violates the European Convention on Human Rights, so there is a possibility that abortion rights will be expanded. But activists have little hope legislation increasing the right to choose will be passed anytime soon; the Northern Irish government collapsed in January 2017 and there’s been no functioning Assembly since.
The British Parliament voted to legalize abortion in 1967, enabling women in England, Scotland, and Wales to access the procedure and have it paid for by the public health system. But the legislation was never extended to Northern Ireland, which has a devolved legislature that has historically remained very pro-life. As a result, women in Northern Ireland have only been able to terminate their pregnancies by traveling elsewhere in the United Kingdom, and until last year they were forced to pay approximately £900 (US$1,200) for the procedure in addition to travel and any other costs. The restrictions in Northern Ireland are so prohibitive that in 2013-2014, only 23 women were able to terminate their pregnancies in local hospitals, The Guardian reported.
On Thursday, police officers seized one robot before the protest began, but activists hid a second robot so they could successfully secure the medication. After women began swallowing the pills, officers attempted to arrest one participant, but gave up after other protesters surrounded her. Campaigners had also arranged for a doctor from the Netherlands to provide medical advice at the site—doing so is illegal for Northern Irish doctors.
Pro-choice groups have been working to creatively circumvent harsh abortion laws for years. Women on Waves, one of the groups involved in organizing Thursday’s action, uses a boat to ferry women into international waters, where they are able to receive medication prohibited in their own countries. A second group involved in the Northern Ireland action, Women on the Web is an international collective that similarly enables women to safely receive medication to terminate their pregnancies, via mail. In its first 10 years in operation, the organization says, it enabled 200,000 women from more than 140 countries to receive an online medical consultation, and assisted about 50,000 women in terminating their pregnancies from home.
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