Under the 1967 Abortion Act, abortion is legal in the United Kingdom up to 24 weeks of gestation, with exceptions made in times of grave necessity. This act brought an end to the years of back-alley abortions many women had suffered in the United Kingdom, as they attempted to reclaim control over their own bodies with poisons and wire coat hangers that left them irreparably damaged. Due to the act, in 2014 184,571* women were able to access safe abortions, this being the total number of abortions in England and Wales.
This image of reform and social growth, however, is not true for the rest of the world, or to be more specific, for all of the UK. The Abortion Act exempts Northern Ireland, so that instead it continues to be punishable with a life sentence under section 58 of the Offences Against the Person Act. In 2014/2015, there were only 16 abortions in Northern Ireland, which provides an explicit idea of just how restrictive the law is.
"They promise to protect the rights of the unborn child, to give a voice to the voiceless, and in the process they take the rights and voices of women everywhere instead."Laws like this one are employed under the guise of being pro-life. They promise to protect the rights of the unborn child, to give a voice to the voiceless, and in the process they take the rights and voices of women everywhere instead; a fair trade, some may argue. I definitively don’t. The truth is that these laws aren’t about protecting life, but instead a cruel and completely legal form of retribution. The life sentence may be lawful, but the undue suffering that women are subjected to by the exact same laws is unarguably extrajudicial.
It is an untold truth that a woman searching for an abortion will find a way to have one. Gynecologist Waldo L. Fielding once told The New York Times that "Almost any implement you can imagine had been and was used to start an abortion — darning needles, crochet hooks, cut-glass salt shakers, soda bottles, sometimes intact, sometimes with the top broken off." The decision to have an abortion being made out of necessity means that women are willing to do whatever it takes, whether that means mutilating their body or entrusting strangers with their lives.
Women in Northern Ireland travel overseas to England as their means of having an abortion. They can be severely ill, victims of rape or children themselves, but the law still means they have to lie and pay their way to accessing a basic human right. The entire process is exhaustive, and the women who resort to this can often be depressed and suicidal as a result of their situation. At this point in their lives, they require as much support and compassion to accompany them as possible, yet what actually happens is the absolute opposite.
"The real sentence is the trauma that results when women are denied a safe abortion."
This is, in fact, where the true punishment begins. The law essentially increases the emotionally traumatic experience that abortion can be, and thus exploits women beyond the right to have control over their own bodies but also very much their mental and consequently physical health too. This is no longer a simple violation of human rights, as many put it. Laws like these- and there are many all around the world -punish women, making them suffer unduly just to receive a medical procedure they desperately need. Criminalising abortion not only penalises women who physically get an abortion, but it also serves to punish those in the process of seeking one. The punishment is not the prison sentence or the fine or the public shaming; the real sentence is the trauma that results when women are denied a safe abortion.
What this really means is that laws like Northern Ireland’s are subsequently of an extrajudicial nature. At no point does the law state that a woman who procures an abortion should be left to suffer from PTSD, or from hemorrhaging or infertility or a numerous amount of health problems that cause sheer distress and agony. The law never states that a woman should be punished for not wanting to be pregnant. Yet in criminalising abortion, this is exactly what the law condones. This is exactly what happens. It simply goes unwritten; never to be spoken.
*Information obtained from GOV.UK