BELFAST, Northern Ireland — Tens of thousands of women in Northern Ireland share a secret: They have traveled to England for an abortion that would be illegal here.
Northern Ireland’s position is peculiar because it is part of a country, the United Kingdom, that was among the world’s first to legalize abortion back in 1967. But the law has been blocked here. So, each year, an estimated 1,400 to 2,000 Northern Ireland residents travel across the Irish Sea to terminate their pregnancies.
Advocates of extending abortion rights to Northern Ireland argue that the prohibition here doesn’t stop abortions. It just makes young women pay hundreds or thousands of dollars for a procedure that, throughout Britain, is free through the UK’s state-funded health service. But the latest attempt to bring Belfast in line with Britain — a cross-party amendment championed by a handful of English lawmakers in London — has not even been discussed.
Such maneuvers reflect the unusual reality that, when it comes to abortion, the British Protestant and Irish Catholic politicians of Northern Ireland see eye to eye. Just two of the 108 politicians in the Northern Ireland Assembly spoke out in favor of the English lawmakers’ effort.
By contrast, the leaders of all four parties in Northern Ireland’s power-sharing administration — a dysfunctional coalition divided on many issues — shared platforms to reject the proposed amendment. They backed an anti-abortion petition drive that delivered 120,000 signatures in October to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s London office.
“Northern Ireland clearly has a pro-life majority. It’s an issue that uniquely crosses the political divide here. Whether you’re Catholic or Protestant doesn’t matter when it comes to imposing the death penalty on innocent, unborn children,” said Bernie Smyth, leader of Precious Life, a cross-community pressure group that was formed 11 years ago to keep abortion out of Northern Ireland. Smyth recently led an anti-abortion picket outside Parliament in London.
Back in Belfast, Precious Life activists mounted their usual weekday protest outside the office of the UK’s Family Planning Association, the major center for women facing unwanted pregnancies in Northern Ireland. A lone woman handed out leaflets depicting a torn fetus.
Audrey Simpson, the Belfast center’s director, said the Precious Life activists pose a chronic irritant for her pregnant visitors who, in many cases, are already afraid of being identified as abortion-seekers.
She said the anti-abortion activists “harass any woman, if they appear young or at a fertile age” — even though most women are visiting other offices in the multiagency building. “They’ll try to give you literature and appeal to you, ‘Don’t murder your baby,’ and they might even follow you all the way back to your car, shouting, ‘You’re going to hell!’ ”
Simpson said about 600 pregnant women seek counseling from her office annually, and more than half opt for abortions in England.
Even though the Northern Ireland visitors are British taxpayers, they cannot use the state-funded health insurance and so must pay anywhere from $1,000 to $3,300. Increasingly, she said, women also are flying to the lower-cost alternative of the Netherlands or buying abortion-inducing pills off the Internet.
She noted that women traveled to her office from the neighboring Republic of Ireland, where abortion also is illegal, because they were afraid of being seen by friends going into one of Dublin’s own crisis-pregnancy counseling centers. But she described Northern Ireland as much more socially rigid than the predominantly Catholic south.
“In normal societies you would at least have doctors and lawyers willing to advocate for abortion rights. There’s healthy debate in the south. Not here. Not one doctor or lawyer will stick their head above the parapet,” she said. “Here, the attitude is: ‘Let’s just ignore what we’re making our young women do. Let’s let Westminster (the British Parliament in London) handle this.’ It’s ridiculous.”