Women given suspended sentence for using abortion pills in northern Ireland - this law must be destroyed


If someone were to tell you that in the modern day UK abortion is illegal you’d probably laugh in their face at such a statement. You’d probably write it off as ridiculous and not worth your time debating considering a simple google search will tell you that abortion has been legal in the UK since 1967. It might then be a surprise for you to hear that just yesterday a woman was handed a three month suspended sentence for two years for having an abortion.

A 21-year-old Co. Down woman who was facing life imprisonment for having an abortion through the use of pills obtained on the internet has been given a suspended sentence.  It is understood that after failing to raise the funds to have a legal abortion in England she ordered the drugs, Mifepristone and Misoprostal in order to have the abortion

Despite being a part of the UK, the abortion laws in the North of Ireland are actually the opposite of the rest of the UK’s. Here, we criminalise women and other people who have abortions, or rather, we criminalise those who are too poor to travel to England to have a legal abortion and are therefore forced to break the law and have an abortion at home.

The abortion law that operates in the North dates back to Victorian times (1861). The Offences Against the Person Act states that if you take "any poison or other noxious thing, or shall unlawfully use any instrument or other means whatsoever...with intent to procure the miscarriage of any woman...shall be guilty of felony, and being convicted thereof shall be liable . . . to be kept in penal servitude for life". The same is stated if you help someone procure an abortion.

Nowadays, the “poison or other noxious thing” is otherwise known as Misoprostol and Mifepristone and can be found on the World Health Organisation’s list of Essential Medicines.

So, if the law states that having an abortion here will land you in jail for the rest of your life why was this woman handed such a, comparatively speaking, light sentence, what does this case tell us?

The first glaringly obvious thing that this case tells us is that this law criminalises poor women. The woman had attempted to raise the funds to travel to England to have a legal abortion. When she was unable to gather the money she was forced to have the abortion at home, something that a wealthier woman would not have to do. If she had the means to travel the decision she made over her own body would never have been scrutinised by the state or the media and she wouldn’t be forced to explain herself like a child.

Predominantly, however, this case tells us that direct action works. Six months prior to this case being brought to our attention we were told of another woman who supplied her daughter with the essential medicines in order to procure an abortion. This came despite the fact that over 100 activists had signed a letter in 2013 admitting to either taking the pills in order to have an abortion or supplying them to someone else who needed an abortion. We could not understand then why, two years later, this woman was being targeted and made a scapegoat of, so we released another letter in the wake of this, this time over 200 had signed it.

This led to media interviews, banner drops, and protests outside of police stations in both Belfast and Derry where we read the names of those guilty of breaking the law outloud and in front of the PSNI, with many of us who had signed it gathered there daring them to arrest us.

We made a mockery of the law. We made it clear that if the police wished to criminalise one woman for a crime that we had all committed then there can be no exception to the law, we must be arrested as well. We invited the police to arrest us and plans were in motion to hand ourselves in en masse.

We made it public knowledge that we were breaking the law and that we would continue to do so until it is scrapped. We wanted every person of childbearing age to know that if they need an abortion and are forced to have the procedure illegally we will support them both in supply and in standing in solidarity with them when the law comes knocking.

If the state had have handed this woman a non-suspended prison sentence we would be left with no choice but to hand ourselves in for equal treatment and they would be left with no option but to prosecute us. The prison service currently does not have the capacity to take in over 200 people (the overwhelming majority being women). Women would literately be bursting out of prison cells. Even the misogynistic state knows that it is cheaper in this case not to adhere to the laws surrounding punishment.

With abortion activism we already know the importance of direct action: if someone needs an abortion we make sure they get it by any means necessary. This case has proven that mass direct action used as a tool of solidarity is highly effective. 

We should take this case as a sign that the only thing that will change this law is a continuance of direct action; in openly defying their law, in making it entirely unworkable. With local assembly elections only a month away we are hearing cries for people to vote in a pro-choice candidate with some even ludicrously stating that this is the only way the law will change. As it stands there is only one pro-choice MLA in Stormont and this ruling was nothing to do with their existence.

This case also highlights what we already knew about the mainstream media; it answers to the state alone. Every northern Irish outlet that reported on this case placed a massive emphasis on the “male foetus” and showed no regard to the woman in question, just as the law does. All reports failed to mention that if she lived a few miles across the water no law would have been broken. They went into great detail over the abortion itself without a second thought that this is a highly personal decision that is not up for discussion by vulture journalists.

We should take this case a sign of encouragement that a change is going to come and that we are responsible for this. The fact still remains, however, that this woman has a criminal record, another woman is still to stand trial and there is nothing to suggest that the state will not single out a woman and target her again.

There is still a case for us to hand ourselves in to protect this other woman and to remove this woman’s criminal record. Further to this, handing ourselves in would highlight the unworkability of the law, it would lay bare the hypocrisy of the UK government and would pressure the state to scrap it.

Until the law allows for a free and legal abortion you can have a safe abortion through the use of pills. If you are in need of an abortion please visit womenhelp.org, womenonweb.org or abortionsupport.org.uk. If you can afford to please consider donating to the Abortion Support Network as well.