Northern Ireland news

'Abortion pill' case leads to Belfast protests by pro-choice campaigners

Pro-choice activists pictured in 2014 after taking a train from Dublin to Belfast to bring back abortion pills unavailable in the Republic
Gail Bell

PRO-choice campaigners have planned a series of protests at Belfast City Hall on Friday in support of a 21 year-old woman from Co Down who appeared in court this week after taking an abortion pill.

The woman, who cannot be named for legal reasons, was charged under a 19th Century law for taking abortion pills to induce a termination and - under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act - could face a sentence of life imprisonment.

She appeared at Belfast Magistrates Court on Monday for a preliminary enquiry into the alleged offences committed during June and July 2014.

One charge involves unlawfully administering to herself noxious substances - namely the drugs mifepristone and misoprostol - with intent to procure a miscarriage for herself, with a further charge of supplying or procuring a poison, knowing that it was to be used for intentions of a miscarriage.

In response to the case, the first such prosecution in 40 years, pro-choice campaigners are to hold 'solidarity' rallies at Belfast City Hall on Friday afternoon.

The case has been widely picked up by the English media with an article in this week's Guardian newspaper highlighting the fact Northern Ireland is the only region in the UK where the 1967 Abortion Act does not apply.

It is understood the woman at the centre of the unusual case is not among those who came forward to the newspaper recently to speak about procuring abortion pills.

Alliance for Choice accused the prosecuting authorities in the region of "going after a soft target" while Goreti Horgan, a pro-choice campaigner and Ulster University academic, said Derry-based activists were considering whether to hand themselves over for arrest to the PSNI in the city for admitting they had procured abortion pills.

Horgan told the paper: "As far as we know, she is the first woman to be charged with procuring her own abortion in at least 40 years. We do know that it seems the authorities are determined not to address the hundreds of woman each year who take the pills and flout the law.

"Rather, they are picking on individual women, often those who seek medical advice. We then have to fear that these prosecutions will put women off seeking medical help and have to hope that it will not lead to someone dying because they are afraid to go to hospital."

A spokesperson for Alliance for Choice added: “If the state wants to charge women who flout the law, then why have they not charged any of the 200-plus signatories of the open letter published in June 2015?

"This is a clear class issue; only those without the money to travel are going to risk causing an illegal abortion, so, if they want to stop women taking pills illegally, make them available on the NHS as they are in Scotland, England and Wales."

In June last year, more than 200 women in Northern Ireland wrote an open letter to the Public Prosecution Service admitting they had illegally bought abortion pills online or helped others procure them.

The catalyst for the move was another Belfast court case which saw a mother in her 30s accused of supplying 'poison' - known abortion pill Mifepristone and Misoprostol - for her daughter to have a miscarriage.

The protests come just a month after a High Court judge ruled the north's strict abortion laws were "incompatible" with human rights legislation.

Mr Justice Horner's landmark ruling has put further pressure on the Stormont Assembly to legislate on the contentious issue with pro-choice campaigners hoping it will pave the way for a relaxation of the current prohibition on women accessing terminations in cases of rape, incest or where there is a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality.

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission brought the challenge against the Department of Justice (DoJ) which, following a public consultation, had recommended a law change in circumstances of fatal foetal abnormality.

The Commission argued that the DoJ had not gone far enough and the current law was incompatible with human rights legislation regarding inhuman and degrading treatment, privacy and discrimination.

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