In 1995 the Saw Doctors wrote these poignant, and sadly still relevant, lyrics about the joyless journey that so many Irish women and girls made, and continue to make, to England to access treatment for unwanted pregnancies:
“Far from small town eyes she floats Across the Irish Sea She's the girl you know from down the road She's your one from out the other side There's a rumour she's in trouble She’s all mixed up inside” Everyday
Whilst the law in England and Wales changed to save women’s lives in 1967, nothing has changed for their sisters in Ireland.
The Abortion Act did not extend to Northern Ireland. It doesn’t matter if you have been raped or if you are a victim of incest - in the eyes of the law you are a criminal.
It doesn’t even matter if your baby will have such severe abnormalities, that they will only live a short painful life. It is illegal to have an abortion. For these women, Northern Ireland has the harshest legal penalties compared to anywhere else in Europe. It might seem ridiculous but life imprisonment is still a possible sentence.
Amnesty International and the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women have been highly critical of what is a flagrant violation of the rights of women and have called for reform.
However, despite being an island of people with a revolutionary past, when it comes to abortion any movement towards reform has been met with resistance in Ireland both north and south.
In Northern Ireland such is the strength of the pro-life feeling that on this issue there are unusual flashes of solidarity between political enemies at both ends of the political spectrum. Conservative Protestants and Catholics are seen to link arms and stand side by side against what they deem to be a liberalisation of laws, which they say protect the rights of the unborn infants.
In the Republic of Ireland the issue has historically been similarly socially sensitive. All previous attempts for reform have failed. A referendum on abortion in 1984 saw the rights of the unborn child enshrined in the Constitution. The effect is that the tragedy continues - young girls and women who find themselves in the circumstances of an unwanted pregnancy are still forced to ‘cross the water’ for terminations. The stories which are overlooked are of the women without the financial means for whom the traumatic option of being ‘on the boat’ is a luxury which is not an option for them. What is available is to continue with a pregnancy that they can’t cope with or, in the case of abuse, that they had no part in.
Some hope is appearing on the horizon in the wake of the recent referendum in Ireland which saw the country, quite rightly, endorsing same sex marriage. Additionally, Ireland’s Prime Minister, Leo Varadkar has now reignited the debate on abortion and set a date for a new referendum on the issue.
It seems as if we are witnessing the emergence of what feels like a more liberalised southern Ireland and that the voice of the people is creating change for the better. Depressingly the same cannot be said of north of the border.
The absence of conflict has brought these previously peripheral issues to the fore on the political agenda. However, all proposals to the overwhelmingly male dominated Northern Ireland Assembly to legalise abortion have been defeated by a large margin. With the ‘Petition of Concern’, a device initially proposed to protect minority rights, being deployed as a veto by the DUP on a wide variety of social issues, it is easy to feel despondent.
The reality is that for the women from communities on both sides of the sectarian divide in Northern Ireland, who find themselves in the distressing situation where they are affected by this issue, the refusal to even consider reform creates a further disparity between their civil rights and the rights that citizens enjoy in the rest of the U.K.
However, on this International Women’s Day, we must not give up on the girls across the water. We must continue to press for progress and stand up for these women and girls whose rights have been ignored for far too long.
Just in case you were wondering, the song ends with this verse:
“Light a candle in the window So they can see it from the road And with all the loving in our hearts Welcome them back home”