In Northern Ireland, women’s autonomy is a criminal offence

Sadhvi Sharma

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Topics Politics

In a shocking legal intervention into women’s private lives, a 21-year-old woman in Northern Ireland has been convicted of procuring her own abortion, using abortion-inducing pills she bought online. In what is believed to be a first-of-its-kind case, Belfast Crown Court gave the woman a three-month jail sentence, suspended for two years.

This case should outrage all those who are concerned about the rights and autonomy of women. A woman making an important and, most likely, difficult decision about her own body has been criminalised and punished for that decision.

The woman, who was 19 years old at the time, intended to travel to England to have an abortion, as do many women in Ireland and Northern Ireland, where abortion remains illegal. But because she could not raise the necessary funds, she was left with little choice but to buy abortion-inducing tablets online.

This conviction dehumanises not just this particular woman, but all women. The law, instead of seeing women as real individuals exercising their reproductive rights, making hard but necessary decisions over their lives, portrays them as criminals. And it strips them of autonomy over their own bodies, transforming them into little more than incubators for potential future babies.

The existing legal frameworks that criminalise abortion deprive women of choices and punish them for making ‘wrong’ choices. It is imperative that we argue for women to enjoy complete autonomy over their bodies and their lives, that we treat them as capable of making moral and practical decisions.

If we are serious about treating women as equal, capable participants in society, then there ought to be widespread outrage about this legal trampling over a woman’s reproductive rights. Abortion must be decriminalised in Northern Ireland and Ireland — and also in England, where women can access abortion, yes, but it is still governed by criminal law.

Sadhvi Sharma is a writer and researcher based in London, and has a PhD in international political economy from the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

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