“Time and time again I’ve told my story to MPs, courtrooms and judges. Each time I relive the trauma. I hope this will be the last time I have to go to court and prove that women like me should be able to access abortion services at home, without being forced to travel.” These are the words of Sarah Ewart, the Belfast woman who was was forced to travel to England for an abortion after being told her pregnancy had a fatal foetal diagnosis. Today, she began her High Court challenge to change Northern Ireland’s restrictive abortion law.
28-year-old Ewart is taking the case to the High Court in her name because a previous Supreme Court appeal failed on a technicality last year. A majority of the seven UK Supreme Court judges found that the current law in Northern Ireland, which does not allow abortion even in case of rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormalities, was in breach of Article 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR). However, they advised that the case must be brought by a victim, not the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission.
All of these issues were touched on by Labour’s Stella Creasy in parliament this afternoon. In an urgent question to the Home Secretary, the backbench MP asked about the territorial extent of the draft Domestic Abuse Bill. She asked that because the government has just restricted the scope of its new piece of legislation to England and Wales, and according to The Sunday Times that decision had more than a little to do with pleasing a certain confidence-and-supply partner. “Vote, vote, wherever you may be. Vote, vote, vote with the DUP!” sang a Tory cabinet minister on his way to the voting lobbies last night. This is the attitude that has thwarted Creasy’s plans to table an amendment to the bill that would have decriminalised abortion in Northern Ireland.
“Can the minister stop hiding behind devolution and say sorry to Sarah Ewart for making her relive the trauma of what happened to her, just because the government need the 10 votes of the DUP to stay in power?” the Labour MP asked minister Victoria Atkins, who stood in for Sajid Javid today. Carolyn Harris, a strong women’s rights campaigner who serves as a shadow equalities minister and was recently elected Welsh Labour deputy leader, got to the crux of the matter in the debate. “The good people of Northern Ireland deserve the same rights as everybody else in the UK, and currently they are not getting that,” Harris said. “They are not protected by a devolved government because of Stormont’s suspension.”
“I totally respect the concept of devolution—when it works.” As a number of members on the Tory benches agree, this is not a matter of overturning devolution but of not punishing women in Northern Ireland who cannot help the political hiatus that has been crystallised by the Conservative-DUP pact in London. And human rights are not a devolved matter anyway: obligations under international human rights treaties sit with Westminster. Concluding her Commons speech, Creasy said: “Put DV, not the DUP, first.” What will it take for Theresa May to listen?