Belfast Telegraph

Stella Creasy: The law is not fit for purpose... it is time to trust all women with their own healthcare

Labour MP Stella Creasy
Labour MP Stella Creasy

By Stella Creasy

The result of the referendum in the Republic of Ireland means women in Northern Ireland will soon be the only group in the UK and Ireland without legal access to abortion; a situation that has never stopped them having abortions.

Whether making the lonely and degrading journey overseas or buying pills online, thousands risk prosecution or medical harm each year.

Stopping provision of abortion doesn't stop abortions; it just increases the chances of an unsafe procedure - and the possibility someone won't seek help if something goes wrong for fear of being locked up.

To be in favour of this status quo is not to be pro-life. It is to be pro putting women's lives at risk.

The law governing abortion across all of the UK is 150 years old.

The Offences Against the Person Act makes it a crime for any woman to cause her own abortion. The 1967 Act didn't change this, but simply gave exemptions in England and Wales not permitted in Northern Ireland.

Repealing sections 58 and 59 of this law for all of the UK would not impose any specific abortion law on Northern Ireland.

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Its absence would, however, enable civil servants, and indeed the Assembly if reconstituted, to set out a framework for a modern healthcare system covering conditions of access.

The cruelty the current legislation creates is reflected in the reality it crafts.

A Northern Irish woman who is raped and seeks a termination faces a longer prison sentence than her attacker. The mother of a 15-year-old girl is currently on trial for buying her daughter abortion pills so she could terminate her pregnancy. A young woman has a criminal record for life after her flatmates reported her for taking abortion pills.

The United Nations recently decided that in letting this situation continue the UK Government was breaching its own citizens' basic right to dignified access to healthcare services.

The Assembly - even if not in session - cannot be used as an excuse to avoid these international obligations, or the consequences for women. But neither should it be disregarded.

Human rights and devolution are two sides of the same coin; we must champion Northern Irish people being both more involved in decision making, and being equally free to make them.

Despite this, the DUP has dismissed this call for change.

Listening to the public tells a different story of the true feelings of Northern Ireland - one of recognition of the damage being done and support for reform across all faiths, political persuasions and age groups. More than 70% agree that the issue of abortion is a matter for medical regulation - not criminal law.

If the deal with the Westminster Tories gives the DUP disproportionate power, then the UK Parliament can help redress the balance back in favour of the people.

Women in Northern Ireland are my equals; yet I have freedoms they don't. Choices about how to live my life are within my gift, not the Government's.

I can marry whom I love without the state restricting who that can be. I cannot be forced to continue an unwanted pregnancy to avoid a criminal record.

Devolution should ensure policies are made closest to those affected by them, not that women face criminal charges and risk their lives, simply because they are living in Northern Ireland.

Far from overriding devolution, removing this archaic legislation from the statute creates the direct opportunity for each nation to update its abortion laws for the 21st century.

There is now a cross party consensus that our abortion law is not fit for purpose. It's time to put equality and democracy first and trust all women with their own healthcare - wherever they live.

  • Stella Creasy is the Labour MP for Walthamstow

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