Why do we only care about American abortion rights?

2 July 2022

4:50 PM

2 July 2022

4:50 PM

In the week since Roe vs Wade was overturned, you’ve hardly been able to switch on the news or open a paper without hearing British politicians and commentators decrying the decision. Almost every woman I know was furious after hearing the news; I’m sure I wasn’t alone in failing to hold back a few tears of frustration at this eroding of established rights. But while we might feel – deeply, viscerally – for our cousins across the pond, we often forget about the difficulties women in our own country still face.

Until October 2019, women in Northern Ireland who needed abortions were either forced to travel outside the province or to go to an underground provider. Only in cases of serious mental or physical harm was the procedure allowed. Those who were found to have illegally aborted a child faced prison. And yet even with the law change, imposed by Westminster after years of Stormont inaction, women in Northern Ireland are still facing far greater difficulties than those in mainland Britain.

Boris Johnson said last week that the revocation of Roe vs Wade was ‘a big step backwards’ for America. But MPs in this country have, for years, been rather less vocal about ensuring abortion access in the whole United Kingdom. The procedure remains patchy at best, with Northern Ireland’s health minister, Robin Swann, saying repeatedly that he is not compelled to set up a central service, despite the change in the law.

Meanwhile the devolved legislature, Stormont, is still stuck in a state of inertia. Some local authorities offer abortion access, but not all, with healthcare providers offering services on an ad hoc basis, often by overworked and undertrained staff. During the pandemic, while women in the rest of the United Kingdom were given access to at-home abortion pills following a telephone consultation, Northern Irish women were limited to ten weeks (and they had to take the first pill at a clinic); after that, they would have to travel across borders for a surgical procedure. Last year, 161 women had to travel to Britain to terminate a pregnancy; 371 the year before. This is a procedure they should have been able to access locally. Where was the outpouring of rage then?

MPs last week formally approved moves to allow the Westminster government to directly commission abortion services in Northern Ireland. But there was no vote recorded for Johnson on the matter – and none on the vote in 2019 to decriminalise abortion in Northern Ireland, held just days before he became Prime Minister. If he feels so strongly that repealing Roe vs Wade was wrong, surely he should have applied the same logic to this country at a time when Northern Irish women were being treated as second-class citizens in terms of healthcare?

Equally, Poland and Malta have some of the strictest laws on abortion in Europe. Malta bans abortion in all cases (the only EU country to do so) while Poland recently introduced legislation to make abortion harder to access – overwhelmingly against the will of the people. There are, by the way, four times as many Poles living in Britain as there are Americans. So where is the outrage at our close neighbours and friends losing their rights? Malta, meanwhile, only became independent of the UK in 1964  after serious discussions about it becoming a constituent part of the United Kingdom. Again, why is it only America that seems to matter? Only this week, 135 Maltese doctors called for a review of the country’s strict laws, filing a case in court after a tourist was denied an abortion when she began to lose her baby at 16 weeks. Yet we hear almost nothing at all.

The Isle of Man, a British Crown Dependency, only legalised abortion in May 2019 – and even then, only up to 14 weeks for most (up to 24, the maximum term in the rest of the UK, only in exceptional circumstances). In Jersey, there’s a 12-week cut-off point. Before the reforms, Manx women were only permitted abortions in cases of rape or where mental health was a risk: but stone me if I ever heard of Westminster MPs demanding change from Douglas. So why is it that we are obsessed with what’s happening in America? Are European women’s rights not as important?

Perhaps because so much of American culture has seeped into Britain, when the rights of women in the states are impinged upon, it feels closer to home. Perhaps MPs are in thrall to the ‘special relationship’. Or perhaps Westminster needs to look at what’s happening in its own backyard before it condemns as barbaric something it has turned a blind eye to here and closer afield.

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