An English woman, a Scottish woman and a Northern Irish woman walk into an abortion clinic

An English woman, a Scottish woman and a Northern Irish woman walk into an abortion clinic.

The English woman says, ‘I’ve been raped. Am I allowed an abortion?’ The receptionist says, “Yes (as long as two doctors confirm it is in your best interests and you meet other criteria)”.

The Scottish woman says, “The foetus I’m carrying has something seriously wrong with it and it won’t survive until birth. Am I allowed an abortion?” The receptionist says, “Yes (ditto)”.

But when the woman from Northern Ireland approaches the counter she is told: “Sorry. Women in Northern Ireland aren’t allowed an abortion, even in the most extreme circumstances. Next!”

Not much of a punchline, is it? It’s no joke either. Northern Ireland is the only place in the UK where abortion is still illegal in the most extreme circumstances of rape, fatal foetal abnormality and incest.

While women in England, Scotland and Wales who need an abortion can have the procedure carried out on the NHS, for free, with all the support they need at an extremely difficult time in their lives, women in Northern Ireland are faced with an unenviable choice: fly to England and have an abortion at a private clinic which can cost up to £2,000 or continue with a pregnancy that could have a severe and long-lasting impact on their physical and/or mental health.

For many, the cost of travelling and paying for private healthcare is prohibitively high so the choice doesn’t even exist. But just as importantly, the current legislation governing abortion in Northern Ireland falls foul of international law and human rights standards, is a violation of women's right to life and health, and it flies in the face of current medical and scientific consensus in the UK.

This ‘one rule for some women and girls and a different one for others within the same country’ approach seems outrageous, right? The vast majority of the British public think so. A poll published by Amnesty International this week found that two thirds of adults in Great Britain didn’t know the law is different in Northern Ireland. When told it is, three quarters said it’s unacceptable that women in Northern Ireland are forced to travel to the rest of the UK if they need an abortion and pay for a service that’s free to women in the rest of the country.

Despite all of this, it would seem that politicians don’t want to take responsibility. The UK government says it is for Stormont to decide. Stormont says it’s not what the people of Northern Ireland want, others cite religious beliefs for lack of any serious attempt until now to bring the legislation into line with international law.

But a separate Amnesty poll in Northern Ireland itself proves the opposite, that in fact there is overwhelming support for reform of abortion laws there. Nearly seven in ten adults said it should be available in the case of rape and incest. Three in five said it should be allowed when there is no chance of the foetus surviving outside the womb.

And those results cut across religious lines with the approval for access to abortion in the case of rape supported by 73% of Protestants and 62% of Catholics.

Northern Ireland’s Justice Department recently launched a consultation on abortion legislation which will run until January next year. It proposes extending the current extremely limited circumstances in which women in Northern Ireland can access abortion – these are if the life of the pregnant woman is at risk or if there is a severe risk of permanent damage to her long term health (the latter is subject to a very narrow interpretation). The proposed changes would make abortion available in the case of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormality.

This is Northern Ireland’s chance to bring its rules a step closer to the 21st century and stop this daily attack on women’s rights. If it chooses to do the right thing, that would be a fitting punchline to this sorry state of affairs.

The poll, carried out by YouGov for Amnesty International, forms part of Amnesty’s My Body My Rights campaign to end the control and criminalisation of sexual and reproductive rights across the world. As well as the UK, the campaign will focus on access to abortion and contraception in Ireland, El Salvador, Burkina Faso and a number of countries in North Africa.

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