I know I’ve been something of a one-issue pony over the last week or so, but funnily enough, as a woman, a referendum in a country just across the water on whether women should be forced to continue with pregnancies they don’t want feels quite personal. I don’t buy the often-trotted-out line that “feminism will only succeed when women stop tearing each other down” – who’s asking all the men to get along and be nice to each other all the time, huh? – but solidarity is a wonderful, galvanising thing.
And in the spirit of feeling galvanised, we’ve got work to do. Women in Northern Ireland are now the only women in the British Isles who can’t access abortion in their home country. As a student in Belfast, it periodically crossed my mind that I was in a place that was hostile to women seeking terminations. Now, had the worst happened to me while I was there, I probably would have been relatively OK – heading across the water would have been heading home, for a start. It wouldn’t have been as lonely, stressful and expensive for me as it is for the 700 or so women who travel from NI to England each year to access a way out of a situation they desperately don’t want to or simply cannot be in.
The headlines today look promising. “Leading Tory women revolt against May over Northern Ireland abortion laws” says The Times. “Abortion referendum likely to put pressure on Northern Ireland politicians” is The Guardian’s more tentative take. There are major obstacles though – for one, NI doesn’t have a functioning executive (power-sharing government) and hasn’t had one since the beginning of 2017. So getting any laws changed when there’s no-one there to change them will be… tricky. Secondly, following last year’s election, the Conservatives chose to enter an agreement with Northern Ireland’s Democractic Unionist Party in order to remain in power. The DUP are right-wing and socially conservative so, shock horror, they oppose abortion and gay marriage. It all looks like a bit of a non-starter, really. However, if we’re going to help Northern Irish women get the healthcare they deserve, we can’t be put off by these admittedly rather major problems. We must take heart from what’s happened in the Republic. It can be done. And it must be done.
As is often the case when governments can’t or won’t do enough to help, charities and non-profit organisations have to step in. Follow @Abortion_Rights and London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign on Twitter (or your social media platform of choice) – the former launched its #NowforNI campaign yesterday, and you can read more here. There’s also Alliance For Choice, a Belfast-based organisation, who do some very reasonably-priced merch if, like me, you love wearing your heart on your sleeve and your politics on your chest. I quite fancy the #trustwomen t-shirt, personally. All the money raised goes back into their campaigning activity.
There is one last thing you can do – for now, anyway. Get in touch with your local MP and ask them what they’re doing to help Northern Irish women. Yes, it’s a boring thing, but a necessary one. A quick email will do. Or you can go through BPAS (the British Pregnancy Advice Service). You might be lucky and find yours has already signed this letter – Labour’s Stella Creasy is the leader of a cross-party group of MPs in urging the government to grant NI women equal access to abortion – but the more people nag their MPs, the more pressing an issue it becomes. Amnesty International UK have also launched their own campaign – which uses the rather pleasing hashtag ‘no woman left behind’. And there was me thinking I was being clever.
One final thing: this isn’t about killing babies, ending life on a whim, or anything like that. It’s simply about giving women a way out of desperate situations. Contraception can fail. People can be victims of truly horrific circumstances. People can make mistakes. If you want your society to be as fair and equal as is possible and reasonable, and there is something that negatively impacts women more than it does men, the right thing to do is to have a support system in place for those women. A safety net, a backstop.
Over here, we have that safety net. The Republic of Ireland has voted in favour of that safety net. Let’s leave no woman behind.