Wednesday 19 June 2019

Courts will not turn a blind eye to abortion - we must take the law into our own hands

'If the young woman who appeared before the court last week had travelled to England, Scotland or Wales at the time of her alleged pregnancy, she could have lawfully been prescribed those drugs by the NHS' Stock photo: www.jupiterimages.com
'If the young woman who appeared before the court last week had travelled to England, Scotland or Wales at the time of her alleged pregnancy, she could have lawfully been prescribed those drugs by the NHS' Stock photo: www.jupiterimages.com
Colette Browne

Colette Browne

The prosecution of women in Northern Ireland for taking abortion pills could be a portent of things to come in the Republic unless our draconian abortion laws are changed.

Last week, a 21-year-old woman appeared before a Belfast court charged with two offences that have remained unchanged on its statute book since 1861 - unlawfully administering to herself noxious substances with the intent to procure a miscarriage and supplying or procuring a poison knowing that it was going to be used to induce a miscarriage.

The "noxious substances" and "poisons" this woman is accused of obtaining are actually the well-known abortifacient drugs Mifepristone and Misoprostol, which are on the World Health Organisations (WHO) list of essential drugs.

This WHO list of essential drugs is compiled with the intention of indicating to governments "the basic drugs their doctors should have available". Mifepristone and Misoprostol were added to the list in 2005 because they are "effective, safe and convenient in inducing medical abortion up until nine weeks of pregnancy".

In fact, if the young woman who appeared before the court last week had travelled to England, Scotland or Wales at the time of her alleged pregnancy, she could have lawfully been prescribed those drugs by the NHS but, because the same abortion rights that exist in other parts of the UK don't extend to Northern Ireland, she must now endure a criminal trial.

If convicted, she faces a maximum sentence of life in prison and Northern Ireland can look forward to joining an ignominious list of countries, like El Salvador and Nicaragua, where impoverished women are routinely jailed for inducing their own abortions.

This young woman is not the only person to appear recently before a Northern Ireland court charged in connection with buying abortion drugs. A mother in her thirties is due to stand trial later this year for allegedly supplying Mifepristone and Misoprostol to her daughter to induce a miscarriage.

Strangely, while these two women have been hauled before the courts, 215 women who signed an open letter to the Public Prosecution Service in the North last June, admitting they had either taken abortion pills themselves or helped others get them, have yet to be questioned by police - despite publicly challenging the PSNI to arrest them.

This begs a question - why have these two women, with no connection to any advocacy or protest group, been singled out and charged when hundreds of other women in the same jurisdiction have publicly admitted to committing the same offence?

The seemingly arbitrary nature of these charges is very disquieting, as is the apparent change in prosecutorial discretion in Northern Ireland, which has led to women being charged under an archaic 155-year-old statute for the first time in generations.

So, those who claim a woman could never appear before a court in the Republic, charged with a similar offence, are wrong. As long as abortion is criminalised in this country, the threat of court proceedings and a jail sentence hangs over women's heads.

Under the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act, the offence of "destruction of unborn life" carries a maximum penalty of 14 years in prison and applies equally to women and abortion providers like doctors and hospitals.

Of course, those women who can afford to leave the State and seek medical treatment abroad don't have to worry about the possibility of a criminal conviction and a jail term. They even have the security of knowing that the State, via the Constitution, expressly protects their right to travel and end their pregnancies.

Patently, the State doesn't want to force all Irish women to continue with an unwanted pregnancy - just those poor and vulnerable women who either can't afford to travel or don't have the requisite travel documentation to leave.

However, the advent of the internet, and the increasing ease with which women can buy abortion pills online, complicates matters for Irish authorities, who must now decide whether they should turn a blind eye to these purchases or whether, like in Northern Ireland, they should begin to prosecute women.

If the DPP were to institute charges against women in this jurisdiction, the ensuing public outrage would, I believe, sound the death knell for our draconian abortion regime. This is something that anti-choice campaigners are cognisant of also, with the deputy chairperson of the Pro-Life Campaign, Cora Sherlock, going so far as to say Irish women would never face charges.

Criticising Amnesty International for stating the current law criminalises women, Ms Sherlock said: "I have to take issue with the way in which Amnesty Ireland constantly refers to a 14-year jail sentence linked to the criminalisation of abortion. Amnesty Ireland knows perfectly well that women are not prosecuted for having abortions. If anyone is likely to be prosecuted it would be the practising abortionist who breaks the law."

Given recent developments in Northern Ireland, it is now evident that Ms Sherlock is entirely wrong and women in this country could well appear before a court charged with inducing their own abortion - if the DPP directs that the case should go ahead.

If, however, the DPP does not intend to ever prosecute women, another question arises. What is the point of having a law on the statute books that is never going to be enforced?

Is it there as a sop to anti-choice campaigners, or does it exist with the sole purpose of threatening and intimidating marginalised women who can't afford to travel to end their pregnancies?

While politicians in the Republic are eager to ignore abortion as an election issue, the cases being tried against women in Northern Ireland, which has equivalently oppressive laws to this country, put it right back on the political agenda.

Instead of asking politicians if they are pro-choice or anti-choice in advance of the election, perhaps it would be instructive to find out how many favour the criminalisation and jailing of women - and how many are in favour of repealing the law that makes those prosecutions possible.

Irish Independent

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