Yesterday a woman in Northern Ireland was given a three-month prison sentence- suspended for two years- for the crime of taking an abortion pill. She was 19 years old at the time.
Abortion is legal in the rest of the UK, and pregnant people have the right to travel overseas for a termination. However, while someone resident in England, Scotland or Wales can almost always have their abortion funded by the NHS, people living in Northern Ireland can’t, and have to pay for private care. Here’s what happened to this woman:
[W]hen the woman moved into the house in May 2014, she told her two housemates that she was pregnant but that she was trying to raise the money to travel to England for a termination.
However, after she was unable to raise enough money, she contacted an abortion clinic in England for advice. She claims that she was told by the clinic about two drugs – mifepristone and misoprostol – that were available on the internet and which would induce a miscarriage.
She miscarried on July 12th. And the following day her housemates found both blood-stained items and the foetus in the bin. One housemate described the foetus as a “wee baby” around 4in long.
Mrs McKay said at this point the housemates were in a dilemma about what to do and were “taken aback by the seemingly blasé attitude” adopted by the woman. About a week later, they contacted the PSNI.
When she was arrested, the then 19-year old gave a “no comment” interview.
Defence barrister Paul Bacon said his client’s prosecution highlighted the difference in legislation between here and the rest of the UK. He told the court “had she lived in any other jurisdiction, she would not have found herself before the court”, adding she felt “victimised by the system”.
Mr Bacon said that at that time the woman was living in Belfast with people she barely knew and felt “isolated and trapped . . . with no one to turn to”.
This woman did something that hundreds (or thousands) do every year: she bought abortion pills online, and took them in the privacy of her own home. She did so alone, without medical supervision. Her housemates didn’t approve of her choice or her unacceptable attitude. They rooted through her bins for proof of her abortion, and they called the cops.
Make no mistake: this woman was arrested because she was poor. She was arrested because she was alone and made the fatal mistake of confiding in the wrong people. Because she was poor and alone, she’s going to have a criminal record for the rest of her life.
This isn’t good enough for some. Bernadette Smyth, of anti-choice organisation “Precious Life”- yes, that name boils my blood- said this yesterday evening:
Today in a Belfast Court a 21-year-old woman from Northern Ireland has been given a three month suspended sentence after pleading guilty to two charges (namely procuring her own abortion by using a poison, and of supplying a poison with intent to procure a miscarriage.
It is understood from Court reports that the defendant bought drugs on the internet to induce a miscarriage on 12 July 2014. Her little boy aged between 10-12 weeks gestation, was later found in the bin of a house she shared with two other people.
Director of Precious Life Bernadette Smyth said that Judge McFarland has seriously undermined the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 which clearly states under section 58, that “Every woman, being with child, who, with intent to procure her own miscarriage shall unlawfully administer to herself any poison or other noxious thing […] shall be guilty of felony, and being convicted thereof shall be liable to be kept in penal servitude for life.
“The woman in this case accepts that she committed a crime by procuring her own abortion by purchasing abortion pills online.
Precious Life is very shocked that this judge’s sentencing was so manifestly lenient in respect of such a serious crime, and is very concerned that this court judgment could set a very dangerous precedent for similar cases.
“Precious Life will be writing to Mr John Larkin QC, the Attorney General for Northern Ireland, and Mr Barra McGrory QC, the Director of Public Prosecutions, to have the matter referred back to the Court of Appeal.”
A suspended sentence isn’t good enough for them.
I wonder what would be? Smyth refers specifically to the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act. She’s shocked that this sentence undermines that Act. But that Act- famously used to sentence Oscar Wilde to two years’ hard labour for sodomy back in 1895- specifies a lifetime of penal servitude for self-inducing an abortion. Where, I wonder, are the forced labour camps of Northern Ireland? Where should we send our women who can’t afford to travel for legal abortions in England?
Abortion may be a crime in Ireland, but it’s not immoral. What is immoral is this. It’s forcing pregnant people to buy abortion pills online and take them in secret. Acting outraged when they’re not sorry enough for their decisions. It’s condemning them for throwing out the remains of their terminations when you’ve taken any other option away from them. When they’re punished, it’s baying for their blood and demanding that their sentence be more severe. More suitably medieval.
How can I help?
If you’re in Ireland, then please check out the Abortion Rights Campaign for information on the work they’re doing to change our laws, North and South. The Abortion Support Network help pregnant people to fund their journeys to the UK for abortions. Amnesty International’s #NotACriminal Campaign are working to change the law in the Republic.
Comment guidelines note:
All the usual comment guidelines apply here. In addition, I will not host comments that question the right of pregnant people to access abortions. Anti-choice, anti-women views have plenty of spaces elsewhere online. I’m not providing a platform for them.
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