More than 200 abortion activists have issued an extraordinary challenge to the justice system by declaring that they have broken the criminal law on assisting an abortion in Northern Ireland.
The 215 named individuals, the overwhelming number of whom are women, said they were “inviting prosecution” about would begin to hand themselves in at police stations in response to an exceptionally rare court case which began last week in Belfast.
On Friday, a woman in her 30s went on trial at Belfast’s Magistrates’ Court on two charges of unlawfully procuring drugs used to end a pregnancy.
She cannot be named for legal reasons, in order to protect her daughter’s identity.
The court was told that the alleged offences of procuring a poison or other noxious substance knowing that ti was to be used with the intention of securing a miscarriage occurred in 2013.
The court was told by a prosecution lawyer said the case involved the alleged injured party’s mother. The judge confirmed that the defendant was being returned for trial at Belfast Crown Court.
Now a group of activists have used the case to issue a challenge which has the potential to decide whether widespread access to abortion is, at least in a de facto sense, legal in Northern Ireland.
Each of the individuals who have signed the open letter released to the media have admitted a criminal offence which in Northern Ireland carries a sentence of up to five years.
However, despite the case now before the courts, it appears that the authorities are loathe to take abortion activists to court for voluntarily admitting that they have broken the law.
In 2013, a similar letter with more than 100 signatories was made public.
Those behind that initiative said that they had not even been spoken to by the police, let alone faced prosecution.
When contacted yesterday, the Public Prosecution Service referred the News Letter to the PSNI.
In a statement, PSNI Detective Superintendent Andrea McMullan said: “Police are aware of the letter and are assessing its contents.
“Abortion is a very emotive issue and as police our role is to uphold the law. It would depend on the specific circumstances of an incident as to whether or not an offence has been committed and each case would be investigated on its own merit.
“Police would remind the public not to take prescription drugs that have not been prescribed to them. The taking of any prescription drug is potentially harmful if used without appropriate medical supervision.”
The open letter was organised by Alliance for Choice, a group which has been campaigning for Great Britain’s 1967 Abortion Act to be extended to Northern Ireland.
In a statement, accompanying the open letter, the activist group said that the signatories were “inviting prosecution for procuring abortion medication over the internet”.
The signatories allege that they have procured abortion pills over the internet – either for themselves or for another person.
‘Police never even spoke to us’
One of the signatories to the open letter, Emma Campbell, said: “It is wrong to charge someone for doing something, which the authorities have turned a blind eye to for years now.
“In 2013, over 100 of us published an open letter admitting to procuring and using abortion pills.
“Not one of us was visited by the police or any other authority – even those who spoke openly to the media about it.”
Alliance for Choice said that they all should be prosecuted alongside the woman currently before the courts, or else the case should be dropped. The group said that they would start to “hand themselves in” at police stations over the coming weeks and “confess” to committing the same offence with which the woman has been charged.
The full list of signatories is:
David Stewart Campbell
Roisin Ni Sheac
Fionnghuala Nic Roibeard
Courtney Louise Taylor Robinson
Fiona Nic Fhearghais
Rhianna Marie Dorrian
Dawn T Regan
Deaglan O Mochain
Judit Maria Szekeres
Hilary Campbell Martin
Julia Tor Rojo
Ross Anderson Doherty
Sorcha Ní Cheallaigh
Cliona Nic Éadbhaird
Shannen Jennifer Hetherington
Moira Ni Ghallachoir
Seanín Ní Connalláin
* An earlier version of this article include Siobhan Fenton as a signatory, as per the open letter issued by Alliance for Choice. The News Letter has since been informed that this is incorrect and updated the article accordingly.