Bust the myths: fight abortion stigma and discrimination

Heather Low, Counselling Services Co-ordinator at Sexual Health Charity 'FPA
Heather Low, Counselling Services Co-ordinator at Sexual Health Charity 'FPA

September 28 is Global Day of Action for Access to Safe and Legal Abortion – a global mobilisation that seeks to decriminalise abortion, provide access to safe and affordable abortion services and end stigma and discrimination towards women who choose to have an abortion.

Such stigma is one of the main barriers that prevent women accessing safe and legal abortion care. Stigma and misinformation causes distress for women, it is worldwide and especially prevalent in Northern Ireland.

Here are some of the myths surrounding abortion.

MYTH: Abortion is illegal in Northern Ireland

Abortion is legal in Northern Ireland in exceptional circumstances. It is only lawful where there is a serious risk to the woman’s mental or physical health and the risk is permanent or long-term. This confuses health professionals and the public. The law means most women who request access to an abortion are prevented from having one in N.Ireland, even if the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest or where the foetus has a fatal abnormality.

It is vital that good practice guidelines on access to abortion services in N. Ireland and Great Britain are published so women and health professionals know where they stand in relation to the law in Northern Ireland.

MYTH: Reducing access to abortion decreases demand

Women who choose to access abortion travel outside N. Ireland to do so. It can cost up £2,000 to obtain an abortion. 837 women who provided an address in NI accessed an abortion in England and Wales in 2014. This figure does not include those women who went to other parts of Europe, or who did not provide an address due to fear of criminalisation.

Increasingly women procure medication over the internet to end an unwanted pregnancy. This is potentially dangerous as they will not have consulted with a doctor and may not seek medical help if complications arise.

FPA believe abortion is an essential part of fertility control and should be available through the NHS to all women in the UK.

MYTH: The majority of people in N. Ireland oppose abortion

An Amnesty International poll in 2014 found that 69 per cent of people think the law in N. Ireland should make access to abortion available where pregnancy is the result of rape, 68 per cent where the result of incest and 60 per cent where the foetus has a fatal abnormality.

FPA believe the decision to have an abortion rests with each woman. Abortion access and treatment should be based on this principle. Having taken the decision to end a pregnancy, all women should be able to access abortion services promptly.

MYTH: Individuals are either pro-choice or pro-life

In terms of sexual health, pro-choice means everyone has the right to make their own choices about their sexuality, relationships, contraception and reproduction. Those opposed to this are anti-choice.

Being pro-choice respects the right of the individual woman to make an informed choice about her pregnancy. At FPA we discuss all options with women accessing services in a non-directive way.

The anti-choice movement describe themselves as ‘pro-life’ but their message is contradictory; advocating that women under all circumstances continue with a pregnancy regardless of physical or emotional danger to her own life. Pro-choice advocates are pro-woman, pro-child, pro-family and pro-life, in the true sense of those terms.

• Heather Low is counselling services co-ordinator at sexual health charity FPA