Celebrations and inspirations – abortion law reforms that put the UK to shame
Franki Appleton, our Advocacy & Public Affairs Advisor at Marie Stopes UK, reflects on the abortion rights progress made over the last 12 months in the Republic of Ireland and the Isle of Man.
What a difference a year makes! From some of the most restrictive, draconian laws in the world to positive reform, the progress made over the last 12 months for legal rights to abortion in the Republic of Ireland and in the Isle of Man has been breathtaking to witness.
Today (Friday 24th May), we’re celebrating the enactment of the new abortion law in the Isle of Man, the culmination of years of inspirational campaigning in the country by CALM IOM and Handmaids IOM. This new law decriminalises abortion, allowing care to be accessed for any reason up to 14 weeks of pregnancy. It takes abortion law out of a criminal framework, and positions it as purely a healthcare issue – something we have yet to achieve in the UK.
And that’s not all! In a two-day abortion reform special, Saturday 25th May marks the anniversary of the Republic of Ireland referendum, where citizens voted overwhelmingly to repeal the 8th Amendment to the Irish constitution, to remove the near total ban on access to legal abortion services in the country.
If I close my eyes I can still see the elation of the Irish diaspora that gathered in an East London pub to hear the results. A sea of cathartic tears and Repeal jumpers, exhausted campaigners celebrating long into the night. While the new abortion legislation in the Republic of Ireland is far from perfect, since its enactment in January this year it has already allowed hundreds to access legal abortion care services without having to travel to a different country to do so.
But law reform does not automatically remove all barriers to accessing legal abortion care. One of the most insidious barriers is a physical one – the presence of anti-abortion gatherings outside of clinics.
The anti-abortion activities outside clinics is a very specific type of street harassment that targets women. We see this activity consistently at many Marie Stopes UK clinics, ranging from attempts to intercept people on their way into the clinic to dissuade them from attending appointments, to overt intimidation, including shouting, following people down the street, and threats of physical violence.
The Isle of Man Government became well aware of this issue, when in late 2017 a UK branch of the US affiliated anti-abortion group, Abort67, travelled to the Isle of Man to demonstrate against the Abortion Reform Bill. In response to Abort67’s public display of graphic posters, a petition was launched to stop anti-abortion groups displaying graphic images of foetuses outside public buildings.
The Isle of Man legislature understood that this kind of anti-abortion activity, which aims to distress and coerce people away from making informed healthcare decisions, could become a fixture outside abortion clinics once reform was enacted. In response, it included an amendment in the Abortion Reform Bill to provide for ‘Access Zones’ outside of any premises that provides abortion or abortion counselling, as well as outside abortion providers’ homes. They understood the importance of protecting those accessing and providing abortion care from harassment, intimidation and gross invasion of privacy, and a clear list of prohibited activities within the Access Zones looks set to achieve this.
Though abortion provision in the Republic of Ireland only began in January, anti-abortion groups have been collecting the names of doctors who have agreed to provide legal abortion services with the intention of targeting their clinics. Maternity hospitals that have been providing abortion care have also been targeted. While protection against harassment was not included in the Republic of Ireland’s Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Act, Health Minister Simon Harris has promised that laws to provide ‘Safe Zones’ will be approved, and the Bill could be published by next month. The Irish College of GPs has backed the suggested Safe Zones, as most abortion care is provided by GPs in the Republic of Ireland, many of their members are likely to face harassing activity.
UK Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, had the opportunity to promise similar protection for those accessing and providing abortion last year, as the Home Office concluded its inquiry into harassment and intimidation outside of UK abortion clinics. However, he did not act. Instead, he claimed that as (at the time) only 36 hospitals and clinics in the UK had been targeted by anti-abortion groups, that was not enough to act. He, of course, failed to mention that the 36 clinics includes the main independent abortion specialist providers, who care for thousands of women every year. Where the Isle of Man only needed to see that the threat of harassment and intimidation was likely, the UK Government considers that thousands of women and medical professionals being harassed every year is not enough.
We need abortion law reform across the whole of the UK, but most urgently in Northern Ireland. As the Isle of Man and the Republic of Ireland have shown, protections against harassment and intimidating behaviour outside clinics must be considered in combination with abortion law reform. Our near neighbours are showing us that it can, and should be done.
These protections are not about trying to quash free speech, as anti-abortion groups would claim. They are about knowing that strangers on the street should never get a say in your healthcare decisions or your access to safe and legal care. The most impactful abortion law reform should send this message – where reform does not just include removing stigmatising criminal frameworks and restrictions, but also removes stigmatising activities that aim to block access. Our government ministers have the ability to act, as Tynwald and the Oireachtas have. Now is the time for the UK Government to take inspiration from them, allow for access to safe, legal abortion in Northern Ireland, and to protect those accessing and delivering this vital area of reproductive healthcare.