Fear and suspicion widespread after the prosecution of a young woman in Belfast whose flatmates reported her to police
A heightened climate of fear has emerged around the topic of abortion in Northern Ireland following the prosecution of a woman whose flatmates reported her to police after she took two drugs to terminate her pregnancy at home.
News of the flatmates decision to call the police only intensified an already palpable atmosphere of unease and suspicion, other women affected by the issue have said. People will feel like they cant trust anybody now, said Lisa, who is in her 20s and from Belfast. She described how she had bought abortion tablets online and taken them two weeks ago.
Sinead (not her real name), 25, also from Belfast, said the case had made her wary of speaking to anyone but her partner about her decision to take abortion pills last September. There is a culture of fear. It puts people in a dangerous situation, making them too frightened to go to the doctor, too afraid to tell anyone. You are never going to get over it if you feel you cant tell anyone for fear of being shopped to the police.
A clash between Northern Irelands Victorian-era abortion legislation and the availability of safe and cheap tablets online has once again put the countrys conservative attitude towards the issue under the spotlight.
On Monday a 21-year-old woman was given a three-month jail sentence, suspended for 12 months, after pleading guilty at Belfast crown court to procuring her own abortion by using a poison, in the first known abortion pill-related prosecution in Northern Ireland. She was 19 when she took the tablets. Her barrister told the court that had his client lived anywhere else in the UK she would not have found herself before the courts.
The court case is hugely significant because self-administered abortions using pills often procured over the internet have rapidly become the cheapest, most accessible solution for women in Northern Ireland, where abortion remains illegal in all but the most extreme circumstances.
Medical staff said they were worried news of the prosecution would make women too frightened to come forward, even in an emergency, after taking abortion pills. I dont want to see women dying from septic haemorrhages because theyve been too scared to get medical attention, said Breedagh Hughes, director for Northern Ireland at the Royal College of Midwives. This case is going to have a huge impact for women who are on their own and pregnant, particularly if they take these pills and want medical help.
On Thursday night several hundred women gathered outside the office of the director of public prosecutions in central Belfast to protest against the decision to take the 21-year-old to court. How many women were disgusted by [Donald] Trumps comments about how women seeking abortions should be punished? Well this is actually happening right now in Northern Ireland, the Alliance for Choice pro-choice organisation said. Protesters were urged to write to the Northern Ireland secretary, Theresa Villiers, asking her to break the radio silence from Westminster. More demonstrations are planned for Saturday in London, Dublin and Berlin.
There has been no comment on the case from the Westminster government because the areas of justice and health have both been devolved to Northern Ireland. None of the regions three major parties have commented on the case.
But it has stayed on the front pages and dominated local radio news and chatshows all week. Pro-choice voices have described the case as a witch-hunt that has targeted a vulnerable young woman. Pro-life activists have criticised the sentence as unduly lenient and pointed out that life imprisonment is a possible alternative under legislation in Northern Ireland, which has the harshest criminal penalty for abortion anywhere in Europe.