The Abortion Drone

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Image: from rosa.ie

It’s 1861. Queen Victoria is in power. If you had children only about half of them would survive to adulthood. Eight years previously, over 10,000 people died from a cholera epidemic. Typhoid was pretty common. Slum housing was growing at an extraordinary rate. Your job may well have been the workhouse – and it’s unlikely you would have been to school.

Fortunately, huge improvements have been made since the 19th century, across infrastructure, health, and technology. But one thing has lasted - the Offences Against the Person Act.

The act reads:

Every woman, being with child, who, with intent to procure her own miscarriage, shall unlawfully administer to herself any poison or other noxious thing, or shall unlawfully use any instrument or other means whatsoever with the like intent, and whosoever, with intent to procure the miscarriage of any woman, whether she be or be not with child, shall unlawfully administer to her or cause to be taken by her any poison or other noxious thing, or shall unlawfully use any instrument or other means whatsoever with the like intent, shall be guilty of felony, and being convicted thereof shall be liable . . . to be kept in penal servitude for life.

You could be sentenced to life imprisonment for bringing about an abortion. The law still applies today in Northern Ireland.

It was exempt from the Abortion Act 1967, which made abortion legal in England, Wales and Scotland. In Northern Ireland, abortions are only legal if a woman is at risk of imminent death. Until recently it was rare to actually be prosecuted for such an offence, although the risk still put women in danger. But recently the danger has become increasingly real, as prosecutions hit the headlines.

In April, a woman who was charged with the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act appeared in court, after she acquired abortion drugs Mifepristone and Misoprostol to help her daughter induce a miscarriage. The drugs are safe, and used regularly in countries where abortion is legal.

Also in April, another woman was given a three month suspended prison sentence after pleading guilty to procuring an abortion by using a potion. She was 19 when she took the tablets – and reported to police by her flat mates two years later. “She showed no remorse, she really didn’t. She was completely fine about it,” said one of the women who reported her, speaking on BBC Radio Ulster’s Nolan Show.

Medical staff were worried when these prosecutions came about. Women who take these tablets in secret are likely to be too scared to seek medical help if something goes wrong. Speaking to the Guardian, Breedagh Hughes, director for Northern Ireland at the Royal College of Midwives, said, “I don’t want to see women dying from septic haemorrhages because they’ve been too scared to get medical attention. This case is going to have a huge impact for women who are on their own and pregnant, particularly if they take these pills and want medical help.”

Abortion in Northern Ireland is, to put it simply, a privilege for those who can afford it. Women make the expensive journey to England to get a safe and legal abortion on the NHS, which they have to pay for. If they can't afford it, many will be forced to buy drugs and take them illegally. They are at risk – not only of death from dangerous and unsafe abortions carried out in secret, but also from prosecution. In recent months, the country has been under the spotlight to act on its antiquated laws, and make the process legal, which could save hundreds of lives. And yet, the law has still not been reformed.

Charities such as Women on Web or Women Help Women are able to supply abortion pills and say they regularly receive calls from women in Northern Ireland. But getting the pills to the women who need them without them being intercepted by authorities is no easy task. Some months ago the Dutch “abortion boat” hit the headlines for travelling across the sea to reach women. The group who runs it, Women on Waves, sail their ship to countries where abortion is illegal, performing medical abortions safely and legally. Application of national penal legislation extends only to territorial waters – outside the 12-mile radius, Dutch law applies on the ship, meaning the Dutch charity can carry out procedures legally.

Despite the absurdity of using a boat to give women safe access to healthcare, the group failed to bring about change in Northern Ireland’s laws. So now the charity, along with several others, will use drones to get both the pills, and their message, across. The pro-choice campaigners will fly abortion pills into the country from Ireland on a drone, scheduled to take place on Tuesday.

ROSA, an Irish charity that aims to promote and organise events to campaign against for reproductive rights, helped coordinate the “abortion drone”. “The action is an act of solidarity from women in the south, where abortion is criminalised, with women in the north, where abortion is also criminalised and unfortunately there have recently been a number of prosecutions,” said Rita Harrold from the charity to The Guardian. “We will be sending the drone over the border and bringing the pills into Northern Ireland to show women that they are still available and they are still safe.”

Pregnant women won’t take the pills, but rather a group of protestors will, to draw attention to how arbitrary and archaic the laws are.

“The Abortion drone will mark the different reality for Irish women to access safe abortion services compared to women in other European countries where abortion is legal," said Women on Waves in a statement. "The different laws in both countries allow for a drone to fly abortion pills lawfully from the South to the North.”

After the drone has made its journey, there will be a protest at the Court of Appeal in Belfast, where an appeal regarding the decision by the High Court that the country’s abortion law breaches the European Convention on Human Rights will be heard. If using drones to carry potentially life-saving drugs sounds ridiculous, perhaps it will make those who still support Victorian-era laws realise that they are being pretty ridiculous too.

Words by Imogen Robinson