On Sunday, 10 June, around midday, women gathered at the Titanic slipways in Belfast, a ‘regenerated’ area of former docks, to take part in the Processions, a march to celebrate 100 years of women’s suffrage, which was taking place in several cities across the UK. At the front of the procession, women walked quietly. At the back, there were banners, some men and loud chanting. Two weeks after the Republic of Ireland voted to repeal the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, women were demanding abortion rights in Northern Ireland.
In the morning I had travelled from Dublin to Belfast on a bus full of women who had canvassed before the referendum. ‘I put my entire life on hold for two months,’ Jade, 18, one of the organisers of the trip, said. ‘I can’t imagine what it’s like for women who’ve been campaigning for decades. Dublin felt a bit like a liberal bubble, so I ended up going to the countryside, carpooling with people I didn’t even know.’ Jade and her friend Rosie, 20, told me about the time Jade was spat at for wearing a Repeal T-shirt. They had been called murderers. Brina, 27, rolled her eyes as she recalled being sprayed with holy water by a drunk man while canvassing in South Dublin. ‘It was my first vote,’ Jade said. ‘I’m so proud of it. But I still wish we hadn’t had to vote on this.’ Having to beg for a basic right had occasionally felt demeaning and absurd. Rosie explained that a lot of Northern Irish women had been helping with the canvassing, particularly in regions near the border. ‘I feel we owe it to them to show solidarity,’ she said. I didn’t notice when we crossed the border.
As the protesters entered Belfast’s city centre, they chanted: ‘The North is next!’. As we entered the Cathedral Quarter, members of the socialist party People Before Profit started chanting ‘We believe her’, in support of the woman who had been at the centre of a high profile rape trial in which two Irish rugby players were cleared last March.
Dawn Purvis, a former leader of the Progressive Unionist Party, opened the first Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast in 2012. ‘We didn’t have universal suffrage here until the 1970s,’ she told me. ‘Some people were given the vote, some weren’t. I guess the organisers of the Processions didn’t take in consideration that fact. The nationalist and unionist parties opposed the women’s vote. The national question always seems to push to the side anything to do with equality.’
‘I have been fighting for abortion rights for as long as I can remember,’ Purvis said. She is in her fifties. She remembers, as a six or seven-year-old, hearing neighbours talking about a woman ‘who had got herself into trouble’ and had to go to Liverpool ‘to get sorted out’. ‘She was talked about as if it was something shameful. Some of the women who went to Liverpool came back and some didn’t, because of the stigma.’
‘Later, a girl asked me to message’ – run an errand – ‘with her. She held my hand and took me to the York hotel. I remember thinking her hand was clammy. At the end of the bar there was a smelly old man and she gave him money. Later I realised the man was a backstreet abortionist. He had been struck off the medical register for having killed a woman. It brought to me how desperate women were, for trusting an alcoholic.’
In the emergency Westminster debate on 5 June, DUP and Tory politicians said they took pride in the number of people alive today thanks to the 1967 Abortion Act not being introduced in Northern Ireland. ‘The DUP claim people vote for them because they are pro-life,’ Purvis said, ‘but it’s not the case. Their view on abortion is not representative of our society. Here people don’t vote for social issues but along religious lines.’
A number of women have been put on trial in recent years for taking abortion pills. Many of them were denounced by flatmates, partners or medical staff. In 2015, more than 200 people signed a letter saying they had bought pills for themselves or others. As the arrests continued, three retired women handed themselves in to the police in Derry, with evidence they had bought abortion pills. They weren’t prosecuted. A young woman who had taken a pill when she was 19 had accepted a caution after being prosecuted. She would never be able to have a job that required her to have no criminal record, or to travel to the US or Australia. Older women insisted it would be better for them, rather than younger women, to come forward. Campaigners told me of the solidarity networks that allow women to get the abortion pill more easily across Northern Ireland and the republic.
I spoke to Breedagh Hughes, the head of the Royal College of Midwives in Northern Ireland. ‘The prosecutions were a wake up call,’ she said. ‘I think everybody had almost forgotten that abortion was still on the criminal statute. This is what Stella Creasy is trying to say in Parliament, that the 1861 law is a completely outdated piece of legislation and should be looked at for the whole of the UK.’
Next September, a woman will go on trial who bought pills for her 15-year-old daughter and was denounced by a member of the girl’s medical team. For Hughes, the case is catastrophic, as it tells women they can’t trust their doctor. ‘We’ve had to adopt a don’t ask don’t tell policy, but it’s not satisfying, women are not getting the help they need, and it’s like working with a hand tied behind your back.’
On Monday I took a cab to Ulster University’s Jordanstown campus, which overlooks Belfast Lough, to meet with Goretti Horgan, a social policy lecturer and founding member of Alliance for Choice. She is also a member of People Before Profit. On the radio in the taxi a journalist was describing the latest developments in a large-scale corruption scandal involving the DUP, which caused the devolved government of Northern Ireland to fail in January 2017. ‘We want Westminster to decriminalise abortion across the UK,’ Horgan told me. ‘They keep saying they can’t do that because of devolution but they would be doing this across the UK. It ends immediate difficulties. Women wouldn’t be arrested. Doctors would use their clinical judgement without worrying about being arrested.’
In 2017, abortion became free for Northern Irish women travelling to England. Travel costs are covered for women on very low incomes. There was an increase in abortions of 46 per cent in the first quarter, and 62 per cent in the second quarter. ‘It shows there was a whole lot of women here who were forced to continue pregnancies because they couldn’t go to Europe. It really shows how unjust the law has been to women, especially to women who are poor.’ But not all women can travel to have an abortion, because of controlling partners, or the difficulty of arranging childcare, or because they don’t have the right documents.
Horgan took me to Belfast airport. As she drove through the Irish countryside, she told me she lived in Derry and that some of the city’s suburbs are in the republic. She couldn’t imagine a border being erected after Brexit, and didn’t think people would accept it. ‘I think it’s great that everyone is having to rethink this place,’ she said, ‘as it’s such an anomaly. I think there’s a great chance that the solidarity we’re seeing now might be the start of a new Ireland on both sides. Both states are riddled with corruption and incompetence. Governance on the whole island is quite dysfunctional. The question of equal marriage and abortion law has raised the question of the border. The South has recognised women as people, why can’t the North do the same?’