Belfast City Council will tonight debate a motion on the increasing number of women going online to get abortion pills and risking prosecution in doing so.
The motion has been proposed by Cllr Kate Nicholl of the Alliance Party* and seconded by Cllr Mary Ellen Campbell of Sinn Féin and comes ahead of a judicial review listed for hearing later this month involving a mother being prosecuted for buying pills for her then 15-year-old daughter who was in an abusive relationship.
The councillors were supported in bringing this motion by both FPA in Northern Ireland, and Amnesty International. Both organisations are key intervenors in this court case and are also working jointly at Westminster to encourage the UK government to legislate for change.
A new poll released today by Sky news shows 54% of people in Northern Ireland support unrestricted abortion for the first 12 weeks.
Cllr Kate Nicholl, who has proposed the motion, said:
“At a time when we have no Assembly and people are increasingly raising questions around this issue, particularly with the referendum in the Republic of Ireland, I believe it is necessary that people who want change know that there are elected representatives and organisations like Amnesty International and the FPA that are listening to them. Prosecutions deter women and girls from seeking medical assistance which will inevitably adversely affect their health.
“Prohibiting abortion does not stop abortion, it stops safe abortion.”
Ruairi Rowan, Senior Advocacy Officer for FPA said:
"For 30 years FPA has provided a non-directive pregnancy choices counselling service in Northern Ireland. One of the biggest changes over the last number of years has been the availability of abortion pills on the internet. Data from one online provider shows that between 2010 and 2015, 5,650 women across the island of Ireland accessed early medication abortion through their service.
“The fact that women are choosing to end their pregnancies at home rather than make the journey to England has changed the climate for healthcare professionals working in Northern Ireland as Section 5 of the Criminal Law Act (NI) 1967 creates the offence of withholding information if a person knows or believes an offence has been committed. Section 5 may therefore make it a criminal offence for a healthcare professional or charities such as FPA to fail to disclose information to the police where they become aware that a woman has taken or obtained abortion medication.
“FPA believes that abortion is an essential part of women’s reproductive health and it should not be considered or implied to be a criminal act. We urge Councillors to support tonight’s Motion."
Grainne Teggart, Northern Ireland Campaigns Manager for Amnesty International, said:
“Northern Ireland’s abortion law carries the harshest criminal penalties in Europe. That grim distinction should be a wake-up call to our politicians. Women and girls who have abortions are not criminals and the law should not treat them as such. Belfast City Council, whilst not a law-making body, can stand by women and send a message that they should not be criminalised and face potential jail time for seeking to exercise the basic right to healthcare.
“Whilst some can now access free abortions in England, women who are in domestic violence situations, those who have health conditions that prevent travel, those who are marginalised due to their immigration status or minors unable to travel without an adult, still remain vulnerable to prosecution.
“These and many other factors mean women are often forced to seek other options.
“With the May referendum in the Republic of Ireland and legislation due to follow, we could see women and girls here boarding trains rather than planes to access healthcare they are entitled to here at home, in a matter of months. We call on Westminster to act without further delay.”