Northern Ireland abortion law ruling
In welcome news, Belfast’s High Court ruled that existing abortion provision in Northern Ireland is in breach of human rights law. Currently, abortion is only allowed if a woman’s life is at risk or there is a permanent or serious risk to her mental or physical health. The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission brought the case to extend abortion to cases of fatal foetal anomaly, rape or incest. This was praised by many as “momentous” for the women of Northern Ireland and hailed as a “milestone”. However, as Amnesty’s Grainne Teggart argued, the ruling also shone a light on the Northern Ireland Executive’s failure to prioritise women’s healthcare. Despite these changes, the vast majority of women who need abortion care in Northern Ireland will still need to travel to access it. As bpas’ chief executive Ann Furedi noted: “This judgment recognises the right to autonomy and privacy of pregnant women with a diagnosis of fatal foetal anomaly and those who are victims of a sexual crime. We welcome this ruling – and look forward to the day when the autonomy of all women in Northern Ireland is similarly acknowledged.”
The BMJ published a study calling for mandatory fortification of food staples with folic acid to decrease the prevalence of neural tube defects like spina bifida and anencephaly in Europe. Although pregnant women are advised to take folic acid supplements, experts from the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition said the high rates of these conditions prove these measures are failing. Less than half of pregnancies are planned, but unplanned is not synonymous with unwanted, and we cannot expect all women of reproductive age to take folic acid on the basis they may get pregnant. Despite the Food Standards Agency recommending that folic acid be added to bread and flour, the government has still not acted on this front. We hope ministers take these recommendations on board and implement what is an extremely effective and straightforward public health intervention. Read more about why we support mandatory fortification here.
The pregnancy charity Tommys started an important campaign this month, #misCOURAGE. It aims to end the silence around miscarriage by encouraging people to share their experiences, and in the process tackle the feelings of guilt and isolation many women feel. There was an honest and moving piece in Grazia which followed the tragic journey of one woman who had experienced 4 miscarriages. Tommy’s survey of more than 6,000 women who had suffered a miscarriage found one-third did not even confide in their partner. As Viv Groskop points out, this highlights just how much we associate miscarriage with failure. By calling on women to talk about their experiences Tommy’s are trying to break the social taboos around miscarriage, which they hope in turn will lead to more interest in funding for research into prevention.
Australia- buffer zones
A ban on anti -abortion protesters harassing people within 150 metres of abortion clinics became law in the Australian state of Victoria. The bill was praised for giving women accessing abortion services the same “privacy, safety and dignity” entitled to all Victorians when seeking health care. As pointed out in The Debrief, the goal of these anti-abortion protesters, whether in Australia or the UK, is to derail a women’s access to abortion care. As one woman who had experienced harassment noted in The Pool, these people “should be stood outside parliament, instead of targeting women who are hurting enough as it is. These people aren’t pro-life – they are anti-women”. Isn’t it about time our government had as much respect for a woman’s right to legal healthcare free from harassment as the Victorians do?
Champions of Choice in the news
Rebecca Schiller, co-chair of Birthrights and a doula wrote a reflective piece for Comment is Free responding to the recent report into stillbirths from Mothers and Babies: Reducing Risk through Audits and Confidential Enquiries. The report found that in 60% of the cases reviewed, different care could have prevented a baby’s death. Rebecca argues, based on her own experiences as a doula, that rather than just investing in machines we need to try and develop a system that listens to women.
Goretti Horgan, one of the 115 activists in Northern Ireland and one of our champions of choice wrote a brilliant article following the abortion ruling in Belfast. Goretti welcomes the judgment but reminds us that thousands of women will still be forced to travel abroad for essential medical care – and those without the necessary funds will resort to self inducing a miscarriage. This situation, she states, is a “national disgrace”
Champions of Choice nomination
Thank you Lauren for nominating ROSA as your Champion of Choice: “Their sheer dedication to the reproductive rights of women makes ROSA a champion. As an Irish organisation, ROSA has tirelessly campaigned to put a stop to the hypocrisy of exporting abortion and repeal the 8th amendment. Their large-scale, high-profile campaign strategies, such as a festival they held in June with speakers debating and spreading word of the abortion rights movement, have been incredibly successful. In particular, ROSA was a lead organiser in the abortion pill bus that travelled throughout Ireland in October, providing women with the help they are entitled to and so clearly need in their country. If it weren’t for consistent voices such as ROSA, change would not take place.”
New research finds the very presence of anti-abortion activists hurts women
Researchers from Aston University have published an important report analysing anti-abortion activity and the effect this has on women attending abortion clinics. The report, which was covered by BBC News, found it is the very presence of protesters outside clinics that women find disconcerting, regardless of what it is they do. Although it comes as no surprise to pro-choice campaigners that a man standing outside a clinic with a camera strapped to his chest can cause women anxiety, it is helpful to have the impact on women evidenced in this way. As Rosa Ellis writes in her Huffington Post blog– the report really does make the case for moving protestors away from clinics hard to argue with. These people have every right to make the case against abortion and campaign against the law, but not to compromise women’s privacy and dignity as they access a confidential health service.
IVF postcode lottery
Unfortunately a couples’ ability to access IVF care on the NHS remains very much dependent on their postcode. Infertility UK Chief Executive (and our Champion of Choice) Susan Seenan and the medical director of Create Fertility, Professor Geeta Nargund, have called for a cap on the amount IVF providers can charge the NHS ( which varies from £3,000-6,000), arguing on the Victoria Derbyshire show that there is no justification for such wide variation in fees. A cap, they suggest, could ensure more equitable provision of IVF, as their research shows fewer than one in five CCGs currently offer the full 3 cycles of treatment to women under 40 as is recommended by NICE. As Kate Brian points out in her Comment is Free piece, the postcode lottery is extremely distressing for those needing fertility treatment who cannot understand why their chances of having a baby are dependent on the road they live on.
Ireland continues the fight for reproductive rights
Thousands of women from Ireland will travel to England each year to access abortion services; an important and moving piece in The Guardian follows the journeys of some of these brave women. However, given the costs involved of travelling abroad, increasing numbers of women may be turning to the internet for abortion medication they can take at home. The reproductive rights group ROSA organised a bus tour around Ireland in October, offering pills to women who boarded following an online consultation with a doctor from Women on the Web and calling for legal reform. These activists were not alone in their efforts to highlight how the law is not fit for purpose. Father Ted writer Graham Linehan and his wife Helen labelled the abortion laws “barbaric” as they joined a campaign led by Amnesty International calling for the decriminalisation of abortion in Ireland. The couple spoke publically for the first time about the abortion Helen had in England when they discovered a fatal foetal anomaly – a termination they would have been denied at home.
The Scottish Parliament will be given control over abortion law, leading to concerns that women’s access to services may be undermined. However, a piece in the New Statesman suggests there is little evidence that Holyrood would press for more draconian laws. As Ellie Hutchinson argues in her guest blog for Education for Choice, devolution offers the possibility of creating a better framework for women. The 1967 Abortion Act has in many ways served women well, but we should ask ourselves whether it is appropriate that abortion in 2015 continues to be regulated by the criminal law. If Scotland chooses to re-examine its abortion legislation, it has a chance to consign this anachronistic framework to the history books, replacing it with one that puts women at the heart of decision-making.
Women are constantly warned about ‘leaving it too late’ – now sixth formers are to be taught about the dangers of waiting to start a family in a pilot educational scheme in south London. Jemima Thackray believes women are already aware of their ticking biological clock. Young couples are not willfully taking chances with their fertility, she writes, so much as trying to carve out a ‘decent’ life for themselves. There were similar sentiments expressed by the women we surveyed for our report Becoming a mother: understanding women’s choices today. Laura Bates argued that we obsess about women’s fertility, as if “women are slot machines who simply need to be primed and pumped at the optimal socially acceptable moment for a baby to shoot out like a prize”. It’s time to take the pressure off women, she concluded, while Lynn Enright in The Pool argued we should stop painting women who want careers and babies as “selfish grabby shrews”. “Having it all”, she writes, is really just getting on with life in an equal way to most men.
Champions of Choice in the News
Lisa Hallgarten Chair of Voice for Choice and one of our Champions of Choice wrote an important piece for Comment is Free about the potential closure of the Margaret Pyke Centre, an outstanding provider of contraceptive services for women in London. As a society, she writes, we seem to take for granted the enormous life-saving, public health and social benefits that contraception has brought us. It is considered a low priority, and access and choice of method are at the mercy of incomprehensible and often inequitable funding mechanisms. If the centre loses its battle for survival we should consider this to be the canary in the coal mine for contraceptive services around the county. If it is saved, she concludes, it should motivate others to fight to save theirs
Ann Furedi, chief executive of bpas, spoke at the annual conference of to the US group Medical Students for Choice about the need to defend the language of choice when it comes to reproductive health. She asked: Does choice seem too whimsical? Are we afraid that, left to themselves, women will make a ‘wrong decision’? But who can make a better decision than the woman herself about her own circumstances? And, crucially, if she doesn’t make the decision, how can she take responsibility for it? You can read her arguments here.
Champions of Choice nominations
We are nominating Maternity Action as a Champion of Choice this month. They are a vital charity committed to ending inequality and improving the health and well-being of pregnant women, partners and young children. They work tirelessly to provide information, advice and training on maternity rights. Their extremely important #Motherswork campaign – calling on the Government to take action on pregnancy discrimination – makes them invaluable Champions of Choice.
Thank you to Nigel Wood for nominating Sarah Fisher from Marie Stopes UK as your Champion of Choice: “I would like to nominate Sarah Fisher who works in Marie Stopes abortion clinics in and around the East Anglia region. Through her work, belief and passion Sarah ensures that women who come for an abortion are treated with dignity and feel confident with their decision. Sarah is a passionate and determined team member who works day in day out with women on the front line. Her hard work and dedication is what makes her my Champion of Choice as without incredible people like Sarah who puts women first we would not be able to offer women the support they need when going through these legal but very emotional procedures.”
Abortion – the law is failing women
In a week where women’s rights occupied a significant number of column inches with the release of the film Suffragette, Professor Sally Sheldon turned the spotlight on a legal relic still controlling women’s bodies in 2015: our abortion law. It may come as a surprise to many to hear that abortion without the permission of 2 doctors is a criminal offence, carrying a penalty of life imprisonment, under a Victorian Law – still on our statutes – passed before women even had the right to vote. As Sheldon argues, it is absurd that in 2015 women do not have full bodily autonomy and the right to make fundamental decisions about their own fertility. Aside from our abortion law, we are witnessing the failure of other legislation to support women seeking abortion care as they continue to be routinely harassed on their way to clinics, reported by Buzzfeed. However, overseas in Australia, change is underway. The state of Victoria, Australia, is set to establish 150 meter protest exclusion zones outside clinics free from harassment and intimidation by anti-abortion campaigners. We hope Theresa May is taking note….
More contraceptive control for women
Contraceptive innovation is all too rare so we were very pleased to hear that women who opt for the contraceptive injection will now be able to self-administer at home. Previously, women would have to go to their GPs or sexual health clinic once every 3 months for the injection, but now women will be able to skip these more time-consuming regular visits in place of an annual check up. The need for fewer appointments aside, developments that put control over contraception and fertility directly in to women’s hands is a good thing. As our very own Champion of Choice Dr Christian Jessen argued in the Metro, the “more choice and the more power” women are given over their own bodies, the better their health outcomes will be. We couldn’t have said it better ourselves Dr Christian!
Alcohol, pregnancy, and respecting women’s autonomy
A British Medical Journal “head-to-head” debate lead to some rather confusing coverage about the impact of drinking during pregnancy. It was an interesting piece in the BMJ, exploring not only the evidence base for guidance but also the relationship between clinicians and patients and how we articulate complex information around risk. Sadly, the nuances were missed, and the coverage presented the article as “doctors advising women to abstain”, largely ignoring the solid rebuttal by Dr Patrick O’Brien from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. We couldn’t help but cheer Dr O’Brien for advocating for respect for pregnant women’s autonomy and capacity to understand information and make their own decisions. Indeed, a recent study on the prevalence of drinking during pregnancy demonstrated that the vast majority of women drink within current Nice guidelines after finding out they are pregnant – more evidence that scaremongering is simply unnecessary.
The rise and rise of older motherhood
New statistics have been released showing there are more women over the age of 35 giving birth than under the age of 25. There are a whole host of reasons as to why women delay motherhood such as career development, the ever-increasing cost of raising a child or simply that women want to wait until they “settled in other areas of their lives” as Harriet Hall states in Stylist. Radhika Sanghani brilliantly argues that the reality is there is no right age for women to choose to have children. So, rather than pushing women into having children when they’re not ready or stigmatising them for having them too early (another case of women can’t win) wouldn’t it be better if the focus was placed on supporting women to have children at a time that is right for them?
Fighting abortion stigma
The internet was taken by storm this month with thousands of tweets and stories written by brave women sharing their abortion story, or supporting others that have done, as part of the #ShoutYourAbortion trend. The campaign may have begun in America, but as Milli Hill points out, it became a global phenomenon because pro-choice advocates around the world are facing the same constant attacks on abortion provision and the “othering” of women who need abortion care. Campaigners in Ireland also spoke out last month to challenge abortion stigma in their home country, with a number of celebrities and activists “outing themselves” as having had an abortion. This trigged a flurry of Irish women writing about their abortions, ahead of the 4th Annual March for Choice which saw thousands take to the streets in Dublin. We really recommend this video of one of our Champions of Choice Mara Clarke of the Abortion Support Network speaking passionately about the experiences of women forced to travel for abortion care.
Champions of Choice in the News
In excellent news our Champion of Choice the wonderful Caitlin Dean, Nurse and Chair of Pregnancy Sickness Support, has won a Third Sector Award for Charity Chair Person of the Year. Caitlin works tirelessly to support women suffering from hyperemesis and improve the services that are available to them whilst also campaigning to raise public awareness of the condition in a public. A huge congratulations to Caitlin and a well deserved win!
We would also like to take this time to nominate Clare Daly TD as a Champion of Choice for her brave and important campaign to bring abortion rights on to the political agenda in Ireland. She has spoken out at the Coalition to Repeal the 8th Amendment this month urging everyone to contact their TDs as well at the March for Choice. In a country where politicians fighting for women’s reproductive rights are a rarity, Clare’s commitment and passion in the battle for reproductive choice make her an invaluable Champion of Choice.
We were extremely pleased to see calls from Labour leadership candidate Yvette Cooper MP for the introduction of abortion clinic buffer zones. Cooper, who requested the government launch a consultation on buffer zones last year, stated: “Women should never be intimidated or threatened on their way to a healthcare appointment or on their way to work. No matter how strongly protesters feel about abortion themselves, they don’t have the right to harass, intimidate or film women who need to make their own very personal decision with their doctors. Everyone has the right to access legal healthcare, medical advice and support and to have some privacy and space to do so – and that includes abortion services.” Jeremy Corbyn MP, frontrunner in the leadership race, has also co-signed a letter to Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt MP to call for action on protest activity – needless to say, no official government response as yet…. For more information about the campaign for abortion clinic buffer zones, vist back-off.org.
Laura Wade-Gery, head of multi-channel at M&S, announced she was having her first child and given her age – 50 – the news was greeted with more finger wagging than mail order flowers. The “seasoned watchers of successful women” came out in force to judge every aspect of Wade-Grey’s pregnancy, from childcare arrangements after the baby arrives and whether or not she will have a c-section i.e. a range of personal decisions that are no-one else’s business. The ensuing debate only serves to highlight the absurdity of the notion of a universal “right” time to have a baby. Women are blamed, as Bidisha brilliantly argued in her Comment is Free piece, for being “feckless bimbos” if they have them in their early teens or “careerist monsters” if they have them in our 40’s. However this is a vilification reserved just for women – as Dawn Foster points out, any time is the right time to have a baby if you’re a man.
One in four pregnancies will end in miscarriage, yet it remains a highly taboo topic. Mark Zuckerberg’s challenged the silence and stigma by posting on Facebook that he and his wife had experienced a series of miscarriages. This in turn lead to a number of men and women making the brave decision to speak openly about their personal experiences. Zoe Williams piece exploring the impact of public health messaging on contribute to the sense of shame and guilt associated with miscarriage was extremely welcome. Even when well-intentioned, papers and headlines about the “potential, but unproven, risks” to a babies health from using new frying pans or having a glass of wine during pregnancy leave many women blaming themselves after a miscarriage. If we are encouraging people to speak openly about their miscarriage, then that honesty must be met with kindness – not blame.
Most women don’t regret their abortions, let’s start trusting them
This US study which illustrates that 95% of women who have abortions don’t regret their decision shows us what we should already know – that women are capable of making the decisions that are right for them and their family at that moment in their life. Women however constantly feel that their decision making is undermined, as Marine Strinkovsky reflects on in the New Statesman. If they aren’t being told by anti abortion activists outside clinics that they will regret their choice to end a pregnancy, the legal framework in this country (which means a woman must have the consent of two doctors before they she can have an abortion) sends out a clear message that women cannot be trusted. This important study stands as clear evidence that women are quite capable of making the decisions that are right for them. As Rebecca Schiller points our in The Guardian – it’s time we started trusting women to make their own choices.
Birth statistics challenge fertility cliffs and rocketing teen pregnancies
You may, like us, have choked on your morning bagel when reading the headlines last week informing women that if they intend to have three children they should get on board the baby train at the age of 23. But birth statistics released earlier this month by the Office for National Statistics provide some reassurance – last year there were more babies born to women aged over 40 than to those aged under 20 and the largest increase in live births was seen in women aged 35-40. So as Lynn Enright ponders for The Pool “maybe we can relax about fertility-falls-off-at-35 thinking?” The pervasive myth that teen pregnancy is ever on the increase was also dispelled, with the data showing that teenage birth rates are at their lowest for 70 years.
Pregnancy and maternity-related discrimination on the rise
A new report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission estimated that around 54,000 new mothers are losing their jobs across Britain every year because of pregnancy and maternity-related discrimination. Justine Roberts of Mumsnet said this type of discrimination is seen on a “regular basis”, echoed in data which found one in five new mothers (that’s as many as 100,000 mothers a year) experienced harassment or negative comments from colleagues, employers or a manager when pregnant or returning from maternity leave. The director of Maternity Action Rosalind Bragg highlighted a substantial deterioration in the situation of mothers in the workplace, with almost twice the number of new mothers losing their jobs now than in 2005 .
Barriers to abortion services still faced by Northern Irish women
Another disappointing result for abortion access in Northern Ireland as a mother and daughter lost their legal challenge to the policy of not allowing abortions on the NHS for women who travel to England and Wales. The fact that Northern Irish women cannot access abortion at home is intensely unfair in and of itself, but that they are forced to pay for the procedure once they have travelled to England only deepens the injustice. Amnesty Northern Ireland rightly noted, this “only adds to the barriers women in Northern Ireland face when trying to access abortion services”.
Poll shows Ireland is in favour of decriminalisation
But let’s end on a positive note: A recent Amnesty International poll shows that despite the draconian abortion laws in Ireland, two thirds of the country would be in favour of decriminalisation, with 8 out of 10 favouring some sort of liberalisation of the law which. This, as Henry McDonald reports, signals a major shift in views surrounding a women’s right to choose. Abortion is currently a criminal offence in Ireland, for the woman having the termination and the doctor who carries it out, yet the results from the poll showed that the majority of people questioned did not realise that it is a crime to end a pregnancy unless the woman’s life is at risk. Additionally 70% of the respondents stated that classifying abortion as a crime contributes to the distress and stigma felt by women who have had abortions, a view shared by Dr Mark Murphy, a GP and spokesman for Doctors for Choice. Colm O’Gorman, Amnesty’s executive director in Ireland points out that this poll shows us that on abortion “Ireland’s people are clearly ahead of their government leader.” We do hope the government catches up soon.
Under-16s can now buy EC – imminent collapse of society predicted
The recent decision to allow under-16s to purchase Ella One (the emergency contraceptive pill that works up to 120 hours after sex) unsurprisingly caused a bit of an uproar. Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt MP said he was “uncomfortable” with the idea and the Family Education Trust criticised the decision stating it will “encourage adolescents to engage in casual sex” despite a complete lack of evidence whatsoever that this would be the case (although why let that get in the way of some good hang-wringing?) While the FET and others believe teens will be popping EC like Smarties, the extortionately high-cost (£35-40) and stigmatising pharmacy consultation will still act as a barrier to access, as Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett argued in the Guardian. Until we lower the price and put emergency contraception on the shelf, many women of all ages will continue to find it difficult to access this perfectly safe method of contraception.
Another new round of guidance on alcohol during pregnancy
In an attempt to make government guidance less confusing for pregnant women, the BMA has, well, added to the confusion by stating that pregnant women should be advised to abstain completely from drinking (alcohol, not water. Although expect guidance on number of units of fruit squash per week shortly.) The BMA also said women needed “more explicit” warnings on alcohol labels. The idea that women should be told to abstain is based in part on the rather patronising assumption that women can’t understand what “moderate” levels of drinking are, which, as Dr Pat O’Brien of the RCOG says, is simply not the case. Worryingly, the end result of all this scaremongering is needless guilt and worry that lasts even beyond the nine months of pregnancy, as new mother Robyn Wilder explained in her piece for The Pool. So we agree with Ella Wheelan – we need to fight back against the constant policing of pregnant women’s behaviours, and trust women with the evidence to make their own choices.
MPs call for abortion clinic buffer zones as harassment prosecution of anti-abortion protester is overturned
Following the news that an abortion clinic is to close as a direct result of protest activity – a first in the UK – Diane Abbott MP and Caroline Lucas MP have taken up the fight for abortion clinic buffer zones in parliament, calling on the government to introduce legislation to enable protesters to be moved away from the clinic doors. The Home Office continues to insist that police have the powers to deal with the protesters, yet the decision on Monday 29th June to overturn a conviction for harassment of an anti-abortion protester in Belfast suggests otherwise. During a campaign of intimidation, Dawn Purvis, Marie Stopes Belfast clinic manager, was followed when leaving the clinic with her son and was told by anti-abortion campaigner Bernadette Smyth “You ain’t seen harassment yet, darling.” When anti-abortion protesters are legally allowed to follow and intimidate women and clinic staff, it’s clear that our current laws are not fit to deal with this growing problem. If you haven’t done so already, please email your MP asking them to support the buffer zones campaign.
To freeze or not to freeze (your eggs when you’re thirty, that is)
Over the last month, we were treated to separate “fertility timebomb” front pages with the combined message of: women – procreate or freeze those eggs before you’re 30 or else. The Mail on Sunday reported that a fertility specialist has warned many women are walking blindly into infertility and needed to be advised to try to start trying for children in their twenties, while the Telegraph managed to slightly misrepresent a study on IVF to suggest that women face a “fertility cliff edge” at 35 and so should freeze their eggs before this age . Needless to say, in both these instances the science was side-lined in search of a dramatic headline. As the New Statesman reported, women have a very good chance of conceiving and having a healthy pregnancy throughout their thirties. Women are acutely aware of their fertility and there are completely understandable reasons why many may decide to have children later in life. They might not have met the right person, they might want to own a home that isn’t the size of a garden shed, they might want to have one of those career things men seem to enjoy so much (this news round-up may be written by a single, childless woman in her late twenties with a grudge to bear.) So less of the haranguing, please. Thanks.
Northern Irish women ‘hand themselves in’ to the police over abortion prosecution
Over 200 incredibly brave abortion rights activists in Northern Ireland effectively handed themselves in to the police to challenge what Amnesty describes as the country’s draconian abortion laws. The action follows the decision to prosecute a mother who bought abortion medication online for her very young daughter who was facing an unwanted pregnancy. 214 activists signed the letter published in a Belfast newspaper admitting to either the consumption of abortion pills, or assisting women in the procurement of an abortion and asking to be arrested – both crimes which carry lengthy prison sentences. We applaud this courageous action, and are proud to have these activists as our Champions of Choice. Northern Ireland’s abortion law makes criminals out of innocent women for simply trying to access essential healthcare. We hope that this will spark the debate and change women of Northern Ireland so desperately need.