Conviction of woman for having abortion ‘shows need for NI law to change’

Protestors campaigning for an extension of the 1967 abortion law in Great Britain to Northern Ireland demonstrated in Belfast city centre in January 2016
Protestors campaigning for an extension of the 1967 abortion law in Great Britain to Northern Ireland demonstrated in Belfast city centre in January 2016

A suspended jail term handed down to a woman who admitted illegally aborting a foetus looks set to “galvanise” efforts to change the law, it has been claimed.

The woman was given three months in jail, suspended for one year, after pleading guilty to charges relating to obtaining an abortion using drugs.

Bernadette Smyth

Bernadette Smyth

The court was told she had made the decision after failing to save enough money to go to England for a medically supervised abortion, and that her housemates had been dismayed by the woman’s apparently “blasé” attitude after the discarded foetus was found in a bin in their shared house.

Barrister and TUV leader Jim Allister said that “the law is the law” and that, if broken, action must follow, while anti-abortion group Precious Life declared that the sentence was “manifestly lenient”.

However, Alliance Assembly candidate Trevor Lunn (formerly MLA for Lagan Valley before the Assembly dissolved) branded the case “medieval” and pledged that – after the election – Alliance members will renew efforts to gradually liberalise the abortion laws.

“Something has to change,” he said.

Trevor Lunn

Trevor Lunn

“It’s certainly going to galvanise us to redouble our efforts to change the law.”

Mr Lunn had spoken very emotionally during a recent debate on abortion in the Assembly.

He called Monday’s conviction “a very sad development”, telling the News Letter that “the law is the law – but it shouldn’t be the law”.

“It’s sad to think that something that wouldn’t be against the law in the rest of the United Kingdom is actually an offence here,” he said, stressing the word “united” in “United Kingdom”.

“That somebody can go through the pain and distress of what’s happened to that poor girl – she was only 19 – and then to be given a criminal record is absolutely disgraceful.”

However, he said a bid to change the law to make it like that in England, where abortion is much less legally restricted, “would not pass” in the Province.

Instead, he and his colleagues look likely – once the new Assembly is up-and-running after the May election – to revisit efforts to legalise abortion in cases of rape, and where the child has no chance of surviving outside the womb anyway.

“If [this case] has done nothing else useful, it has actually highlighted the situation,” he concluded – adding that as the Assembly election looms, the public should be quizzing prospective MLAs about where they stand on the issue of relaxing the law.

Emma Campbell, a 37-year-old north Belfast student and vice-chair of Alliance for Choice, told the News Letter last year she was one of over 200 people prepared to openly admit to unlawfully obtaining abortion drugs – which are easily available online.

She and others had protested outside police stations in Belfast and Londonderry, calling on police to either drop all prosecutions for such offences, or to take action against all 200-plus people.

She suggested on Monday that some supporters could now escalate this protest further, and hand themselves directly in to police stations.

She believes that the conviction is a sign that “we are unfortunately leading the way in Europe for some very, very terrible treatment of women”.

A statement from her group said that the case amounts to “the criminalisation of women who can’t afford to travel”.

“This conviction is a threat to all people without similar means, and is a clear signal that women are not recognised as full citizens,” Alliance for Choice said.

Amnesty International in Northern Ireland said: “Instead of sanctioning women and girls for seeking the healthcare they need, the Northern Ireland Executive should lead the way in reforming abortion laws to bring them into line with international standards.”

Taking an opposing view was director of Precious Life Bernadette Smyth, who said she was “shocked” that the woman did not get a stiffer sentence, and that she hopes to see the matter referred to the Court of Appeal.

Jim Allister said: “I think that the law is the law. And whatever the law is has to be enforced.

“Obviously this prosecution was brought... and a sentence imposed.

“That’s called due process. That I would have thought is what you’d expect, and it’s appropriate.”

Mr Allister echoed Mr Lunn’s call for electors to press their would-be MLAs about their position on the matter as they canvas for votes.