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Northern Ireland abortion law back in the spotlight following suspended jail sentence

A suspended jail sentence for an abortion in Northern Ireland has reignited the debate in the UK. While cultural stigma and draconian law remain, women's human rights will continue to be breached, experts say.

Northern Ireland remains the only part of the UK where abortion is unobtainable - except in exceptional circumstances. An abortion can only be carried out, for example, if a woman's life is at risk or there is a permanent or serious risk to her mental or physical health. Rape and fatal fetal abnormality are not included in these "exceptional circumstances."

To this day, Northern Ireland's abortion laws are still based upon the 1861 Offences Against The Person Act which classifies abortion as a "felony" - making it one of the most onerous criminal prohibition contained in any European law with a potential penalty of life imprisonment.

'Public interest'

Monday saw the enforcement of the 1861 law upon a 21-year-old Northern Irish woman who was given a three-month jail sentence - suspended for two years - after pleading guilty to two charges of "procuring her own abortion with a poison and of supplying a poison with intent to procure a miscarriage."

She was first reported to Northern Irish authorities by her housemates after she took a pill at 10 to 12 weeks pregnant to induce a miscarriage in July 2014. Prosecutors argued her sentence was "in the public interest."

Woman with her head in her hands

Many Northern Irish women cannot afford to travel to England where they could have a legal abortion

Belfast Crown Court heard from her housemates how they were "taken back by the seemingly blasé attitude" shown by the then teenager when she told them how she couldn't afford the trip to England, where she would have been able to undergo a legal abortion.

In fact, the woman's financial predicament is one familiar to many other women in Northern Ireland who find themselves carrying an unwanted pregnancy. According to the UK Department of Health's most recent abortion statistics, 837 abortions were performed in England to Northern Ireland residents in 2014 - 611 of which were performed before the ninth week of pregnancy.

With online abortion medication the only option for some women who cannot afford the travel costs to England, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) described Monday's court ruling as "deeply unjust." In a statement to DW, the organization said the current situation in Northern Ireland "smacks of one law for the rich and one law for the poor."

Mara Clarke, founder of the London-based Abortion Support, which helps finance women in Northern and the Republic of Ireland to obtain an abortion in England, said the network was concerned that Monday's prosecution would result in many women being too scared to access the legal abortion pills which are authorized by the World Health Organization (WHO).

"We're worried this will result in there being even more women who can't afford a termination," she said.

Limitations of UK law

Sally Sheldon

Professor Sally Sheldon, University of Kent

Despite being part of the UK, under the terms of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, Northern Irish Assembly holds full legislative control over both health and criminal justice. Belfast is therefore under no obligation to implement the 1967 Abortion Act which legalized abortions by registered practitioners across England, Scotland and Wales, up to the twenty-fourth week of pregnancy.

The Northern Irish abortion law has been repeatedly condemned by numerous organizations, including the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and Amnesty International which regards abortion as a "fundamental human right," key to upholding the rights of all people to their own bodily integrity.

In an interview with DW, Sally Sheldon, a professor of Medical Law and Ethics at the UK's University of Kent and widely-published author in the field of abortion law, said Westminster must step up and ensure human rights compliance across the UK.

"Northern Ireland is still part of the United Kingdom and it's subjected to all of the human rights treaties that the UK is signatory to," Sheldon said, highlighting that in November last year, North Ireland's High Court judge Mr. Justice Horner found that the country's almost blanket ban on terminations breached women's human rights.

Despite Justice Horner’s criticism of the current law, when he later read his final conclusion in December, he told Belfast High Court it would be "a step too far" for him to interpret sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act of 1861 to allow for abortion in the case of a fatal fetal abnormality or where the pregnancy is the result of a sexual crime. Northern Ireland Attorney General John Larkin QC also announced in January that his office had launched an appeal to overturn the ruling.

"We call on all politicians to repeal these antiquated, Victorian laws and create an abortion framework fit for women in 2016. We deserve nothing less," BPAS said following Monday's ruling.

Pro-life and pro-choice unite

"The Northern Irish abortion law clearly breaches the European Convention of Human Rights and again the High Court," Sheldon said, arguing that many people who have very strong moral or religious reservations about abortion still don't think it's appropriate for women to be sent to prison and that the criminal law is an appropriate response.

Donald Trump

Donald Trump originally said women should be "punished" for having an abortion

This was evident, Sheldon said, in the unique moment which united anti-abortion and pro-choice groups across the world last week after

US Republican candidate Donald Trump said abortion ought to be illegal

and women who underwent such an illegal procedure should face "some sort of punishment."

The Republican frontrunner hastily clarified his position, however, saying only those who performed abortions would be "held legally responsible, not the woman."

'Lenient' conviction

Despite the outcry from the public as well as human rights organizations this week, one Northern Irish anti-abortion group, Precious Life, showed no sign of changing their stance, claiming that the ruling "seriously undermined the Offences Against the Person Act 1861." In a statement to DW, the organization said it was "very shocked" that the sentencing was so "manifestly lenient."

Precious Life said their legal advisors had written to the attorney general for Northern Ireland and the Director of Public Prosecutions, to have the matter referred back to the Court of Appeal. The group has no right to appeal the sentence, however, with only the director of public prosecutions able to ask the Court of Appeal to review the sentence.

Cultural stigma

With no immediate legal changes on the horizon in Northern Ireland, Sheldon said that in the meantime, Monday's conviction would shed more light on the current situation.

"Seeing this horrible, punitive, archaic, draconian law enforced in this way - particularly against a woman who was a teenager when she had the abortion - will hopefully focus people's minds on what the legal situation is," Sheldon said.

A poll published by Amnesty International in February, found that seven in 10 Northern Irish people backed abortion law reform - with 60 percent voting in supporting abortion reform for cases where the fetus had a fatal abnormality and 69 percent supporting reform for cases where a pregnancy was the result of rape or incest.

Despite the public opinion polls, however, the shadows of the Catholic and Protestant Churches in Northern Ireland continue to loom over changes in legislation in Belfast.

Sheldon argued that while the current 1861 law continues to be implemented in Northern Ireland, it remains very hard for women to speak out about their experiences - maintaining in turn a culture of secrecy and stigma surrounding abortion, which shows little sign of progress.

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