Abortion has come grudgingly to Northern Ireland in the wake of coronavirus | Anna Cafolla | Opinion

Abortion law reform was officially meant to arrive in Northern Ireland on 1 April – having been previously voted on and passed through Westminster when Stormont was still languishing on its hill, all the way back in what might now feel like another astral dimension, October 2019.

In a chaotic timeline of events, Northern Ireland’s health department missed its original April deadline for providing regulations that offer solid access to abortion care. The coronavirus crisis, the ensuing lockdown and widespread pressure on health services were blamed for the delay. But with heel-dragging and wilful ignorance becoming synonymous with Northern Ireland’s leading parties, campaigners and clinicians criticised anti-choice sentiment for slowing down the implementation of abortion services. DUP and UUP assembly members had still been resisting change.

Health trusts readied themselves to deliver services, but were halted by the Department of Health. Women’s bodies were, still, used in capricious political gameplay – pawns yet again in poisonous tribal politics.

Even worse, the political line became one of gaslighting – Northern Ireland’s health minister, Robin Swann, and the Northern Ireland secretary, Brandon Lewis, resisted calls for telemedicine to provide abortion pills to people safely at home. They also stated that travelling to England was still a viable option.

While telemedicine was introduced in the rest of the UK, and separately in Ireland, they recklessly inferred that pregnant people in Northern Ireland should defy government guidelines to stay at home. With strained health services and travel restrictions, scarce flights and hotels closed, it was a terrifying prospect, and in many cases totally impossible.

Campaigners pointed out that the only available route to safe abortion care in England was a ludicrous eight-hour freight ferry to Birkenhead. We heard of women self-harming and at least one who attempted to take her own life when they couldn’t get terminations. Worry grew that such barriers, as the country’s shameful past shows, would lead women to make desperate, dangerous decisions. In a year that was poised to be one of liberation and body autonomy for people long treated as second-class citizens in Northern Ireland, access to care was suddenly worse than ever.

Late on Thursday, Northern Ireland authorities confirmed that early abortions can now be carried out in local hospitals. It’s a historic occasion, but it is not difficult to see the efforts of some Stormont politicians to deliberately impede the rollout of free, safe, legal, local abortion care for anyone who may need it.Long-awaited access to abortion services is a result of thunderous public pressure and pro-choice groups threatening legal action. Once again, it’s been down to campaigners, activists, and healthcare professionals to bring about the vital modernisation of reproductive care in line with the rest of the UK.

Grassroots organisers and charities have filled the gap in the years when Stormont languished without a functioning assembly and in the stormy months since its restoration. They have refused to stand by as women’s health became a political bargaining chip, while an international health crisis raged.

Alliance for Choice, a valiant local group, stepped in to post pills for self-managed abortions, in line with regulations, while the British Pregnancy Advice Service launched its own scheme for abortion medication by post. The swift action on telemedicine for pregnant people in the UK and Ireland – something still unavailable in the north – only further amplifies the inequality gap and contemptible political unwillingness to protect women in Northern Ireland.

Civil society battling back against government callousness will be a legacy of the coronavirus crisis. The pandemic lays bare severe structural inequalities – in Northern Ireland, women suffer its impact and shoulder the crisis burden. Whether that’s the lack of telemedicine and unclear regulations, or that 93.8% of nurses – those on the frontline – are women.

The crisis has seen a tenfold increase in universal credit applications in Northern Ireland, a scheme found to disproportionately disadvantage women. The pandemic will likely lead to increased domestic abuse: women are forced to stay at home with their abusers, and the highest ever number of domestic violence crimes in Northern Ireland was recorded in the last year. Here, the coronavirus and the issue of accessible abortion care run in parallel as health and welfare concerns that are innately feminist issues.

It remains an unfinished revolution for free, safe, legal abortion care in Northern Ireland. Despite the coronavirus lockdown, women still have to leave their homes when they could safely take the two World Health Organization-recognised pills at home unlike their English, Welsh, Scottish and Manx counterparts. Robin Swann has the mandate for implementing telemedicine, and any further delay puts vulnerable people at significant risk. Clarity, detail and purpose are needed to see these regulations implemented fast. The fight is not over.

Anna Cafolla is a Belfast-born journalist specialising in women’s rights, Northern Ireland, youth culture and activism

Source link