The fall of Roe v Wade has ensured both sides of the abortion debate in Northern Ireland have hardened their respective positions, writes Gillian Halliday
When the United States gets a cold, the rest of the world sneezes. It’s an often quoted handy phrase that has been used by commentators and experts throughout the decades to underline the nation’s standing as a global powerhouse — economically, politically and culturally.
Where America goes, other western countries tend to follow — for good or for ill — and that includes Northern Ireland.
That concept came into sharp focus last week when the US Supreme Court [SCOTUS] overturned the landmark 1973 Roe v Wade ruling, which effectively brought an abrupt end to the constitutional right to abortion by putting responsibility for abortion law into the hands of elected politicians in the nation’s 50 states.
Thirteen states have already passed ‘trigger laws’ — immediately enacting anti-abortion laws as soon as Roe v Wade fell. This means that women living in certain states such as Texas, Mississippi, Idaho and Arkansas will now have to seek out illegal abortion pills, or travel to abortion providers in California, New Mexico or Michigan. Critics of the Supreme Court move have branded it ‘reproductive tourism’, insisting it will lead to women seeking out abortions through illegal means, such as abortion pills. Others, however, including pro-life supporters, hailed the decision as democratic, arguing abortion should never have been treated as a constitutional and federal issue in the first place.
The vocal response to the ruling, largely falling along political partisan lines in the US, soon saw media attention on this side of the Atlantic turn once again to Northern Ireland. Although abortion was decriminalised here in 2019 through the intervention of Westminster, pro-choice organisations here have been vocal in insisting women seeking abortions still face hurdles in accessing services, particularly a lack of official information online.
Access to abortion has been available here since April 2020 after new laws came into force, but it is largely limited to early medical terminations up to 10 weeks of pregnancy.
Those seeking abortion services not yet provided by NI Health Trusts can access services in Great Britain through arrangements that are funded by the Department of Health.
The dragging of the rollout of services has prompted NI Secretary of State Brandon Lewis to recently warn that he will avail of new powers to commission widespread abortion services here in the continuing absence of a functioning Stormont, including a telemedicine service for women seeking abortions.
The Department of Health, meanwhile, has said Robin Swann — who remains in place as caretaker health minister — was unable to bring draft commissioning proposals forward without a functioning Executive.
In response, Mr Swann said the new regulations would be given “careful consideration” by the department.
Both sides of the contentious issue in Northern Ireland are now casting their gaze stateside, asking what does the rescinding of Roe mean for their respective stances. Amnesty International NI decried it as “shameful” and a “painful reminder of the fragility of progress”, while pro-life advocates see it as an opportunity to push back against Westminster.
In the Republic, anti-abortion supporters believe the decision to repeal the Eighth Amendment can be reversed.
Ruairi Rowan, director of advocacy and policy for sexual health charity, Informing Choices NI (ICNI), described the US development as “devastating” to the organisation.
“As we are aware in Northern Ireland, banning abortion does not remove the need to end a pregnancy. It forces women to either travel or access services that may not be regulated,” he told The Belfast Telegraph.
“While there are reputable online telemedicine providers that provide early medical abortion pills, some women who we have spoken with have raised concerns that they would not be able to afford the donation to access this medication. I worry that such women will be so desperate and may turn to more dangerous methods. This highlights the need to ensure this vital healthcare is in place to all people who may need it.”
He stressed the situation here is precarious for those who want abortion access, explaining: “Despite a new abortion framework being introduced in Northern Ireland, the Health Minister and the Northern Ireland Executive have failed to commission services. This has resulted in a fragile service, which varies between trust areas.
“No public health awareness campaign has been introduced by the Department of Health to provide information on the availability of local abortion services, women are still forced to travel to Great Britain to access care, and some continue to resort to using online pills to procure their own abortions.
“No new guidance has been produced for healthcare professionals to update them on the change in law, including their right to conscientious objection, and the circumstances in which they can avail of this.”
Asked if he could draw comparisons between the power dynamics of SCOTUS and the States to Westminster and Stormont, Ruairi said: “There are parallels... in that it has been a majority of men making decisions about women’s reproductive healthcare, often with the opinions expressed based on personal ideology as opposed to medical fact.
“The ruling will result in people having to travel to access abortion services. The provision of healthcare should not be dependent on a person’s location or ability to board a plane.
“Travel carries stigma. It adds to secrecy and it can take away privacy.”
The charity worker continued: “The United States is out of step with other countries who have taken steps to expand reproductive rights. While progress has been made in Northern Ireland, services need to be urgently commissioned to ensure that the legislation is enacted and the rights of women and pregnant people are realised.”
Dawn McAvoy, from Both Lives Matter, said those in the pro-life camp can “take heart that here, like there, unjust and immoral laws can and will be overturned”.
“We believe the SCOTUS ruling is a public good. Roe falsely created a legal right to terminate the preborn human being. An ideology bled out from America across the world that dehumanised and devalued the unborn child in law and culture.
“It created a public right to abortion, based on private choice alone. The level of access to abortion at will unjustly became a litmus test for women’ rights, the measure of progress, freedom and equality.”
Dawn continues: “Fifty years of pro-choice/abortion laws and policy in America and the UK have normalised abortion and the dogma of choice that underpins it.
“Some of the messaging from pro-choice/abortion activists now is that any restrictions on abortion will be a threat to every area of women’s rights from education to healthcare, protection against domestic violence to personal happiness.”
Describing the reaction from pro-abortion supporters to Roe as “genuinely hard to comprehend”, Dawn added: “The overturning of Roe v Wade is neither an apocalypse for women’s rights, nor a silver bullet for pro-life advocates.
“What are people so afraid of? The narrative that has been driven has said that for women to be free to live, the termination of their children must be freely available. We disagree.”
The island of Ireland has for some time has been seen as a battleground by American campaigners. Before the Republic voted to overturn its abortion ban in 2018, US pro-life organisations poured hundreds of thousands of dollars to support their Irish counterparts — a development highlighted by The Atlantic magazine in 2013.
Northern Ireland and the Republic were seen by foreign abortion opponents as one of their last important European allies. Likewise, the pro-choice movement here is now holding demonstrations — like one held at Belfast City Hall this week — to highlight the situation in America as well as for women in Northern Ireland. There are fears from pro-choice supporters that the decision has buoyed pro-lifers in the United States, with one Derry Alliance For Choice activist telling one media outlet recently: “Pro-life groups in the US have alarming ties to pro-life groups in Ireland, both north and south.
“What we’re most concerned about is what if these groups are emboldened by what’s happened in the US.”
Dawn insists that while the rolling back of Roe is “not a silver bullet”, those on her side of the debate “hope it does signal a new beginning”.
“The unravelling of the pro-abortion dogma has begun,” she adds.
“We ask ourselves; what should a pro-both world look like? Can we imagine and build a better future where both women and unborn children are protected and supported to live and thrive — together? A world where unborn lives are saved? Where the structural and systemic reasons that drive women to seek abortion, like poverty, violence, and individualism are challenged and answered?”
She also draws parallels between the political power dynamics at play on both sides of the Atlantic.
“In 1973 the US federal government through a ruling at the Supreme Court extended abortion rights and restricted the ability of States to enact protections from abortion in line with their cultural, moral and religious belief systems. In 2019 Westminster did the same to NI, ignoring devolution and disregarding the democratically expressed will of the people who live and work here,” explains Dawn.
“That imposition of abortion there was likely why it remained so contested. Although it took 50 years to overturn Roe and return abortion legislation to local government, we take heart that here, like there, unjust and immoral laws can and will be overturned.”
The overturning of Roe v Wade has ensured that abortion will remain a highly emotive issue in Northern Ireland for some time to come. A decision that was made more than 3,000 miles in Washington DC has only ensured that the battle lines in Northern Ireland have only been drawn even deeper.