“It has taken over 40 years to extend justice and equality to the women of Northern Ireland on this issue. There is no rational case for this unfairness. We hope that in the autumn, when parliament debates our new clause, fellow MPs will take the opportunity to right a wrong that has gone on for too long”.
The repeal of the 8th amendment is a huge victory for women in the Republic of Ireland, where the majority of the population have voted to liberalise abortion laws. In the 21st century, something as fundamental as a woman’s right to control her own body should not be a matter for debate. But women across the world have fought and won these rights. That is why it is nothing short of a disgrace that part of the British Isles actively denies women this human right.
In 2008, I was proud to table an amendment to extend the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland. I was supported by Labour MPs John McDonnell and Katy Clark; Tories Jacqui Lait and John Bercow and the Liberal Democrat Evan Harris. Despite winning broad support from women in Northern Ireland, mainstream political parties were against this logical and fair change. I believe that if we had actually voted on the amendment, we could have won. Ministers concerned about the sustainability of the Good Friday Agreement and relations with Northern Ireland’s mainstream political parties ensured that my amendment was at the end of a long list. It never saw the light of day.
I agree with many campaigners that the 1967 Act is far from perfect. But it is fundamentally unjust that we live in a country where a woman’s location determines whether or not she has legal control over her own body.
Under this government it is also the case that a woman’s location determines the quality of the reproductive services she receives. Tory cuts to the NHS have hit women’s health the hardest. Earlier this month I visited the Women’s Health Centre at my local Homerton Hospital, one of only a handful of centres across the UK that covers a wide range of gynaecological services, including late term abortions. The centre provides health care for over 1,800 women, with many travelling from across the country to access its services.
The fragmentation of reproductive services have led to a dissolution of adequate support, such as healthcare away from centres, and means that women are ping-ponged across the NHS, sometimes travelling long distances. There have been reports of distressing results when electing to take the abortion pill. In Hackney, women don’t have to go through this, but having these services nearby should not be an exception, it should be the rule.
Women who opt to take the medical abortion pill option are required to attend the clinic on two consecutive days. This requirement has been shown to be unnecessary and enforced by outdated rules. With cuts to NHS health services, allowing women to take the second pill at home would free up staff to receive training and spend quality time with more patients, instead of re-issuing medication the next day. And let’s be frank, like certain measures of the Abortion Act and government policy, this is just another form of control.
I trust women. Women should be able to take the second abortion pill at home just as they do in Scotland, and women in Northern Ireland should not have to travel to other parts of Britain to seek an abortion.
This is not simply a devolved issue as some have suggested, it is an issue of human rights – rights that the British government should convey to all its citizens regardless of where they live. We need to seize on the momentum of the result in the Republic of Ireland – for equality of rights for women in Northern Ireland, and equality of resources across the whole NHS. The government needs to make this a landmark year when women’s reproductive rights are fully respected and realised.
Diane Abbott is shadow home secretary and MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington.