The spectre of the Tory-DUP coalition: The DUP and women's fertility rights
The seismic political shifts of the recent General Election were unprecedented, a hung parliament which resulted in the ‘coalition of chaos’, Unionists as guarantors of the Conservative government. The one billion pound ‘confidence and supply arrangement’ was subsequently shaped with the biggest pro-forced pregnancy party in the UK.
The Democratic Unionist Party is Northern Ireland’s largest party and has strong links with the Presbyterian Church of Ulster. Since its creation, the DUP has maintained a strong opposition to socially progressive reforms and attempts to liberalise the law in regards to abortion. The DUP unanimously voted against Labour MP Diane Johnson’s proposal to protect women who induce miscarriage using pills bought online and oppose funding for international family planning programmes, in line with Donald Trump’s ‘global gag bill.’ They also use a veto-mechanism to block progressive clauses in legislation in the guise of maintaining British conservatism.
The 1967 Abortion Act which legalised abortion does not apply to Northern Ireland. Abortion in Northern Ireland is deemed ‘unlawful’, a criminal offence, and still swathed in secrecy and stigma. Only 16 terminations were carried out in 2014-15 due to healthcare risks for the mothers both physically and mentally, with healthcare professionals operating under a culture of fear. Northern Ireland is home to the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe, with the Belfast High Court in 2016 voting that the current abortion laws were in breach of human rights regulations. Fertility rights in Northern Ireland have undergone a regime of politicisation, control and policing.
The disjuncture between the DUP’s views and reality is extremely problematic. Accounts of women seeking abortions in England and buying pills online to induce termination are ever more frequent. In 2016, a 21-year-old woman was given a suspended prison sentence for buying drugs online to induce a miscarriage whilst a mother who helped her 15-year-old daughter buy abortion pills online faced two charges of unlawfully procuring poison with intent to procure a miscarriage. The DUP discourse on abortion is dangerous and deeply distressing. The criminalisation of abortion does not bring about fewer abortions but, instead, unsafe abortions. Whether one agrees with abortion or not is another matter. The potential health consequences of clandestine and self-inflicted abortions are not addressed. Women fear and fail to seek assistance for an abortion due to lack of safe spaces and the very real threat of a penalty of life imprisonment. The trauma individuals face is incomprehensible.
A recent Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey revealed 80% of the public believe abortions should be legal in cases of rape, incest or in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities. Jim Wells, the DUP health minister, declared that aborting a child of rape was ‘punishing’ the ‘ultimate victim of the terrible act’, the unborn foetus. The DUP health minister opposes abortion in cases of rape. Deliberations over what defines personhood, and moral and ethical stances are a contentious and divisive issue. Nonetheless, the disregard for women’s rights in the process of abortion legislation is shocking. The life of the mother is conserved, but not prioritised.
The current debates over the price of the morning-after pill in high street chemists and increase in abortion pill online sales in Britain reveal the struggle for women’s fertility rights has been acrimonious, but ongoing. These rights cannot be undermined or side-lined by the right wing contingent on the Tory backbench. Anti-abortion legislation has often been cast as being part and parcel of religious values, however, religious values should not be politicised as an agent of oppression. Individuals seeking abortion should not be denied autonomy, and should be viewed without judgement. The Creasy amendment to the Queen’s Speech will provide NHS abortions to Northern Irish women, who no longer have to pay discriminatory charges, though it is no certain fix. Costs of travel, accommodation, and visas still apply.
Improving access to abortion and decriminalisation should be issues on the political agenda. Ian Paisley Jr, MP for North Antrim, declared ‘the rights of the unborn child trump any political agreement.’ Labour silently watered down pledges in their General Election draft manifesto to the finalised document promising to ‘work with’ Northern Ireland instead of their previous affirmation of the extending of the right for a safe legal abortion in Northern Ireland. But, there is no room in the coalition for a backroom deal for a service that the British Pregnancy Advisory Service claim ‘one in three women will need in their lifetime.’ Regressive legislation and women’s lack of abortion rights in Northern Ireland can no longer be ignored, nor can the draconian limitation of reproductive freedom be an issue this government is complicit in. Women should not be deprived of their bodily autonomy – reproductive rights are also human rights.