Words: Eva O’Beirne
Activists in Northern Ireland have been campaigning for months for candidates to commit to abortion access in the upcoming Stormont elections. But the removal of Roe v. Wade could damage the expansion of these services.
Abortion and abortion access in Northern Ireland has ways been an uphill battle, with the British Government having to intervene in 2019 to decriminalise it, and demand that services be implemented by March 2022.
Speaking to Ciara, a representative from Derry Alliance for Choice, it is clear that the discussions in the US Supreme Court could be devastating for the perception of abortions globally.
A draft opinion from the US Supreme Court shows that the country is poised to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade case, which enshrined legal abortions across all 50 states. Up to half of the states across the country are likely to ban abortion. But why does this pose a problem for Northern Ireland?
“Pro-life groups in the US have alarming ties to pro-life groups in Ireland, both North and South,” says Ciara. “What we’re most concerned about is what if these groups are emboldened by what’s happened in the US.”
“It’s just really disheartening, we all feel dread in our stomachs,” she continues. “We’re sending our support to our fellow activists in the US who we do a lot of solidarity work with. It isn’t fully set in stone, but we need to fight back harder than ever.”
Ciara and other activists in Derry Alliance for Choice have been conducting surveys to measure the views of candidates in the Stormont elections on abortion. When voting opens on Thursday, Ciara hopes that parties will keep their promises.
When the referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment passed in 2018, Sinn Féin made it clear that the North was supposed to be next. But after the Assembly collapsed, it was up to the British government to enable the introduction of abortion services in Northern Ireland for cases up until 12 weeks. This new legal framework for abortion has yet to be fully established, with clinics that do offer the service stopping at ten weeks.
During the Assembly debate in March 2021, Sinn Féin spoke out strongly against a DUP bill which sought to amend the law in Northern Ireland to prevent abortions in cases of non-fatal disabilities, including Down syndrome. Despite vocal opposition to the DUP’s bill, Sinn Féin then abstained on the vote, resulting in the bill passing its second stage by 48 votes to 12.
Derry Girls actress Siobhan McSweeney, who plays Sister Michael in the show, directly tweeted at Sinn Féin: “By abstaining last night you essentially voted with the DUP”.
The dual nature of Sinn Féin in the North and South has created anxieties for activists who are unsure what will come about if the party gains a majority in the Assembly, but activists hope they will fulfil their promises,
The vocal opposition to abortion appears to be growing with an Aontú representative recently stating that there are no circumstances under which the party would support access to abortion, including rape.
“What we’ve seen in a lot of hustings for this election is that it is no longer good enough to just say “I’m pro-life” – people have had to justify their stances,” explains Ciara.
“It’s a complicated picture because there’s a lot to be worried about,” Ciara continues. “Separation of church and state is absolutely essential in any country. A lot of people get their moral compass from the law and Roe v. Wade being overturned could really damage this.”
“A few years ago, [abortion] wasn’t an election issue. The fact that it’s being talked about signals a real change. We have to keep talking about it and prevent negative perceptions of what is necessary healthcare.”
“There’s been such backlash, a backlash against pro-choice activists and candidates, even death threats. And the reason why there’s this level of backlash is that those who oppose abortion know that the tide is turning.”
So what is next for abortion services in the North? In March 2022, a bill to establish safe-access zones around abortion clinics was passed in the Assembly which will create further pressure to make abortion services available as soon as possible.
“For me personally, there is hope,” says Ciara. “But I know a lot of anti-choice rhetoric can cause people to be hesitant to seek abortions because of the stigma. I think that we point to Roe v. Wade so often, as an example, because America is supposed to be so ahead of us. We’re saying all of these things and we’re very far away from what is happening.”
“These people in the US seeking reproductive healthcare and trying to protect their rights, the exact same as us. We’ve come too far in Northern Ireland to go back. I just hope no one feels like this ruling should stop them from seeking the help they need.”
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