An average of 11 women travel each day from the island of Ireland to have an abortion in England and Wales, according to the most recent Department of Health data. That adds up to more than 200,000 journeys since 1983, when the passing of the Eighth Amendment underlined the ban on abortions in the republic.
In Northern Ireland, the potential punishment for contravening the ban is even more severe. “It’s much more difficult even to have a conversation about abortion in Belfast,” says Jess Brien, a 25-year-old pro-choice campaigner who lives in Northern Ireland’s capital, “because the maximum sentence for having one here is life imprisonment.”
No women are currently in prison for having an abortion in Ireland, with only suspended sentences having been handed out in recent years (in the republic, the maximum jail sentence is 14 years). But Brien, who returned to Belfast last year after working in music PR, says it’s “definitely strange moving to Belfast after living in London. You have the privilege of free healthcare in England – whereas if you’re going to a family planning clinic in Belfast, it’s shrouded in shame. You get questioned intensely.”
Maria Maymes also lives in Belfast, but the 21-year-old Ulster University student is poles apart from Brien when it comes to abortion. “Media bias has created this idea that all young people are pro-choice,” Maymes says. “But when I’m on the streets [campaigning], I get a very positive reaction from young people. The negative reactions to our views come mainly from a middle-aged or older demographic. Most young people have an instinct within them to protect life.”
Maymes and Brien represent a new wave of youth-driven campaigning on both sides of the abortion argument, which will come to a head over the next few months now the Irish government has confirmed it will hold a referendum on reform of the country’s strict anti-abortion laws by the end of May.
Read the feature in The Guardian.
[This piece was published online on 30/01/18 and in the print issue of 31/01/18]