A Northern Ireland woman was legally punished for having an abortion

In the United Kingdom, a 21-year-old woman was recently legally punished by the Belfast High Court – not for murder or stealing or selling drugs – but for having an abortion when she was 19. According to The Guardian, the woman received a three-month suspended sentence.

The accused woman lives in Northern Ireland, where abortion is defined as “unlawful.” Over 150 years ago, according to the Independent, Queen Victoria passed a law making abortion equivalent to a criminal offense. Those who disobey – even if their fetus is disabled or if they’ve been sexually assaulted – are faced with a ruling that could potentially result in life in prison. (There are special circumstances allowing for abortion when the life of the mother is in danger.) Interestingly, most citizens of Northern Ireland do support a woman’s right to choose. According to The Guardian, “Polls suggest that more than two-thirds of voters in Northern Ireland support abortion.”

What’s perhaps even more revealing is the story behind this court case. At the age of 19, the woman in question was coping with an unwanted pregnancy. Since she could not afford to travel to England for an abortion, she dealt with it at home after obtaining abortion pills. Her roommates later found the remains of her self-performed abortion in the garbage and reported her to authorities. She was then imprisoned, arraigned for her deed, and most recently penalized.

Though these circumstances are related to a law of the past, they are a present concern that can easily affect women – not just in the U.K., but all over the globe. After all, Donald Trump publicly stated – in 2016 – that women who partake in illegal abortions should experience “some form of punishment.” (Although he later backpedaled on the statement.)

As for Northern Ireland, Independent writer Siobhan Fenton reports, “Westminster could easily overturn the abortion ban by passing legislation in the House of Commons. There is a particularly clear case for doing this as a High Court found in November that Northern Ireland’s abortion ban breaches international human rights law.” She adds that British politicians often ignore issues in Northern Ireland because they do not want to get involved in their complicated politics during a time of peace.

In the U.K., there’s also an argument stating that women can simply travel to England for an abortion, so why mess with the laws in Northern Ireland? However, as this case shows, the funds aren’t always there for women to do so. With this in mind, it can be said that a woman’s freedom often rests on the financial opportunities available to her.

Though this may not be happening in the region where you live, it is a significant topic that affects us all. It represents the power of the law over women’s reproductive rights, over a woman’s right to make decisions for herself.

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