She was 19 years old, just over a couple months pregnant, and she didn’t want to have a baby.
Had she been living anywhere else in the U.K., getting an abortion would have been legal and relatively simple. It might even have been paid for by the National Health Service.
But the woman lived in Northern Ireland in the U.K. So her abortion made her a criminal.
In decision that has set off a wave of protests in the U.K. and Europe, an Irish court handed down a 12 month suspended sentence this week to a teenager who took pills she ordered online to end her pregnancy.
The now 21-year-old — who cannot be named because of a court order, according to the BBC — had wanted to go to an English abortion clinic, but she couldn’t afford the travel fees, her lawyer told the court. Instead, the Belfast Telegraph reported, she called a clinic and was told that she could induce an abortion using two drugs available online, mifepristone and misoprostol (which just became easier to access in the United States under new FDA guidelines). She ordered the drugs, and on July 12, 2014, she ended her pregnancy.
A week later, after finding bloodstained clothes and a 10- to 12-week-old fetus in the trash, her housemates called the police, according to the BBC.
In taking the pills, the woman ran afoul of a 155-year-old law called the “Offences Against the Person Act,” which bars women from procuring and administering drugs to induce an abortion. Elsewhere in the U.K., the harshest parts of the law are mitigated by the 1967 Abortion Act, which made the procedure legal so long as it is carried out by a licensed medical practitioner.
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But in Northern Ireland, the rules from 1861 are still on the books. Abortion is only legal in cases where the mother’s life or physical and mental health are at risk. All other situations, including in cases when the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest, are punishable by life imprisonment for both the woman and anyone who assisted her.
Another Northern Ireland woman is currently facing trial for allegedly providing abortion pills to her underage daughter, according to the Guardian.
Last year, Amnesty International published a report calling Northern Ireland’s abortion law “draconian” and the “harshest in Europe.” It also noted that some 60,000 women had traveled from Northern Ireland to the U.K. since 1970 to obtain an abortion they couldn’t legally get at home.
“No politician in a civilized country should force a woman to leave her family and loved ones to make a journey to another jurisdiction for abortion treatment,” the British Pregnancy Advisory Service’s Donagh Stenson said in a statement accompanying the report. “Taking the decision to end a pregnancy is journey enough for any woman.”
For women who can’t afford to make that trip, the options are even more limited. Some, like the 19-year-old who was sentenced this week, order abortion-inducing medication online. Others turn to even more desperate measures, according to Kent University medical ethicist Sally Sheldon, who wrote about the issue for the Conversation, including drinking bleach and throwing themselves down stairs in an attempt to trigger a miscarriage.
Despite the strict laws, it’s rare for Northern Ireland to prosecute women under that legislation. This was the first time any woman had been convicted for an illegal abortion in Northern Ireland in more than a decade, Sheldon said.
New guidelines for health providers issued this March also seemed to tacitly acknowledge that women in the region were taking abortion medications on their own — and didn’t require hospital employees to report women who appeared to have done so. Fiona Bloomer, a professor of social policy at Ulster University, told the BBC it was a “don’t ask, don’t tell” system.
But the roommates of the woman sentenced this week went to the police on their own. In an interview with the Belfast Telegraph, the two women — who have also asked to remain anonymous because of the backlash they’ve received — said they were horrified by the way their roommate went about ending her pregnancy.
One roommate, a 38-year-old, said she’d offered to be the child’s legal guardian when it was born, but the teenager “called the baby ‘the pest’ and kept saying she just wanted rid of it. She said: ‘I don’t want this inside me.'”
The roommates said that the woman told them she was ordering pills online and could not be talked out of it. After she ended her pregnancy, her 38-year-old roommate said she went to take out the trash and found the fetus lying in the trash bin.
“He had fingers, little toes. Even now I just have a picture in my mind of it. Its wee foot was perfect,” she said. “Even now I feel sick. It has done so much damage to me mentally.”
The fetus lay in the trash for eight days before the police were called, the Belfast Telegraph said. The 38-year-old said their decision to report their roommate didn’t have “anything to do with the rights and wrongs of abortion.”
“I’m not anti-abortion. I believe there are circumstances, like rape, where it should be a woman’s choice,” she said. “This is about her attitude. It was as if she was getting rid of a piece of clothing.”
On Monday, the woman’s lawyer, Paul Bacon, described his client as “a 19-year old who felt trapped” and “victimized by the system.” He noted that the drugs she took are usually administered by doctors, meaning the woman put her health at risk — something she wouldn’t have had to do if Northern Ireland’s abortion laws were the same as the rest of the U.K.’s.
“Had she lived in any other jurisdiction, she would not have found herself before the court,” he said, according to the Belfast Telegraph.
The woman now has a baby with her new partner, Bacon said, and is just trying to put her life back together. Through her lawyers, the woman has said she doesn’t want to speak publicly.
She pleaded guilty to procuring her own abortion by using a poison and to supplying a poison with intent to procure a miscarriage, according to the Irish Independent. She was given a three month jail sentence, suspended for 12 months.
In the U.K. and elsewhere, abortion rights advocates have been outraged by the woman’s conviction. Protests were organized in Belfast, Berlin and elsewhere. Amnesty International told the BBC it was “appalled” by the woman’s conviction, and, in a statement to Deutsche Welle, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service called the ruling “deeply unjust.” Since self-administered abortion medications are the only option for some women who cannot afford the cost of traveling to England, the group said, the current situation in Northern Ireland “smacks of one law for the rich and one law for the poor.”
Mara Clarke directs the Abortion Support Network, a charity that helps women from Northern Ireland travel to England to get abortions. She told Mashable that the case highlights how unequal abortion access is in the U.K.
“By prosecuting women for taking safe abortion medicines, they are saying ‘Women with money, you can determine when you want to have children’, but ‘Women without money, you’re screwed,'” she said.
But pro-life activists were equally unhappy with the sentence handed down by Judge David McFarland, which they felt was to lenient. The group Precious Life has called for an appeal of the sentence, according to the Belfast Telegraph, arguing that it is so mild it undermines the law.
“The woman in this case accepts that she committed a crime by procuring her own abortion by purchasing abortion pills online,” director Bernadette Smyth told the newspaper. “Precious Life is very shocked that this judge’s sentencing was so manifestly lenient in respect of such a serious crime, and is very concerned that this court judgment could set a very dangerous precedent for similar cases.”
Though debates about abortion are heated and emotional nearly every place they occur, the issue is particularly contentious in Northern Ireland. Only four other countries in Europe have laws allowing women to be jailed for having the procedure, and none call for a life sentence, as Northern Ireland’s does.
Recently, efforts have been launched to ease Northern Ireland’s abortion restrictions — particularly after the Belfast High Court ruled that the law violated the human rights of women and girls (Northern Ireland’s attorney general is appealing the ruling). A public opinion poll published by Amnesty International (which supports abortion access) in 2014 said that 7 in 10 people in Northern Ireland think the country’s law should allow for abortions in the case of rape or incest. Another 60 percent said the procedure should also be available when the fetus has an abnormality.
But opposition to abortion is a rare instance of agreement among Northern Ireland’s various political parties. In February, members of the Northern Ireland assembly voted against a law that would have allowed abortions when the fetus is diagnosed with a terminal condition that would cause it to die in the womb or shortly after birth.
In the wake of the court case this week, another woman who induced her own abortion shared her story with the BBC. Identified only as “Louise,” she said that Northern Ireland women who seek abortions are subject to a “witch hunt” like the one that led to the conviction of the 21-year-old.
Louise ended her pregnancy using the same medications as the other woman. She booked herself into a hotel — she could not take them at home — and quickly swallowed the pills.
“I felt incredible pain. I was passing huge clots of blood. I was hemorrhaging all day — I felt so sick,” she said.
Initially, Louise feared going to the hospital, in case doctors figured out what she’d done. When she finally did seek medical treatment, she told doctors she’d had a miscarriage.
Now that it’s over, she says she doesn’t regret what she did.
“This is illegal,” she told the BBC. “But I just can’t see how people can see this as being criminal.”