Despite a backlash against decriminalisation, Sarah Ewart’s high court victory shows pro-choice advocates are winning

‘Sarah Ewart had to take a case to the high court – twice.’ Ewart speaking to the media outside Belfast’s high court in January 2019. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA

In 2013, Sarah Ewart received a heartbreaking fatal foetal abnormality diagnosis for her much-wanted pregnancy. Faced with the prospect of a baby who might die during gestation or shortly after birth, she felt she couldn’t continue with the pregnancy. But in Northern Ireland abortion is illegal unless the mother’s health or life is at risk, so Sarah travelled to England for a termination.

It was a journey she should never have had to make.

Finally, the court has agreed. The high court in Belfast today found that Northern Ireland’s strict abortion laws contravene human rights in the case of fatal foetal abnormality. The judgment is nothing short of a stunning victory for reproductive rights campaigners.

For Sarah Ewart and thousands like her who have travelled away from their homes and loved ones to access basic healthcare, encountering stigma where there should have been empathy, it is finally a semblance of justice. A victory, she said outside the courthouse this morning, not just for her, but for all women.

That she had to take a case to the high court – twice – to demand her basic human rights in a drawn-out and traumatising legal process is a damning indictment of the state of reproductive rights in Northern Ireland.

The judgment comes as the tide is changing for abortion in the country. Through the determination of abortion activists, decriminalisation is now on the horizon. It is not yet guaranteed, something that the court acknowledged, saying it would review today’s decision not to issue a formal declaration of incompatibility until after 21 October, when the legislation decriminalising abortion is set to take effect in the absence of a functioning Stormont executive.

But the backlash against decriminalisation has already begun. The DUP and Sinn Féin are facing pressure from anti-abortion factions to reconvene negotiations that could lead to the restoration of Stormont before 21 October: if the Northern Ireland assembly returns by then, it would effectively scupper the decriminalisation legislation coming from Westminster. Abortion rights and equal marriage would then go back to the starting block in Stormont, their progress dependent on a new and unpredictable political process. This is what abortion opponents want. They are willing to sacrifice all other principles solely to defeat abortion (equal marriage is rarely mentioned in public, though surely discussed in the DUP backrooms).

Some healthcare workers in the north have also declared their alarm at potentially being required to carry out abortions. In Belfast city council, Sinn Féin councillors voted with the DUP against a Green party motion welcoming the forthcoming decriminalisation and equal marriage – something Sinn Féin ostensibly supports – apparently bowing to anti-choice pressure. In London, meanwhile, MP Stella Creasy, instrumental in the passage of decriminalisation legislation, has been the victim of vile abuse, arguably levelled at her not only for her role but because she is also pregnant.

It is worth remembering, in this fraught atmosphere, that backlash against abortion isn’t really about abortion at all – whether it’s in Northern Ireland, Argentina, Poland or the United States , it’s about control over women’s bodies and lives, and who gets to exercise that control.

The value they place on life starts and ends in utero – confining women to traditional gender roles and controlling their ability to participate in society. If it was only about abortion and not control, church leaders and other groups now coming out of the woodwork with their distress and concern would logically have taken a stand for “life” during the introduction of universal credit and the rape clause. If it was about abortion and not control, they would have been calling for free universal childcare and affordable housing for all – things that would make a marked positive impact on women and marginalised communities’ lives – among other progressive causes that feminists have long campaigned for in tandem with abortion rights. That these groups have chosen this moment to pressure the DUP to return to Stormont negotiations “without red lines” reveals what their “concern” is really about: they have seen Northern Ireland go without a government for two and a half years – and all the problems that has entailed – but only now, with abortion legislation on the horizon, do they push for the assembly’s restoration.

Reproductive justice cedes to women territory that has always belonged to men: that of bodily autonomy. Were women truly free to exercise control over their own bodies and therefore their own lives, they would be unstoppable. It is the definition of liberation. Without reproductive justice, without access to abortion, women and other oppressed communities are pushed into poverty, farther into the margins of society, until it is acceptable for “concerned” citizens to ignore the cruelty of austerity politics and its horrific consequences – while demanding deference to their beliefs on “life” when it comes to abortion.

Focusing on abortion also allows anti-choice politicians and activists to pass judgment on pregnant people. Their intention is to isolate abortion-seekers by stigmatising them, driving a wedge between them and their communities, and between abortion and other progressive causes. In Northern Ireland’s current political situation, this means pitting reproductive rights activists against Irish-language activists – the status of the latter being part of what brought down the Stormont government in 2017. It is a losing strategy. Progressive activists in Northern Ireland have long known that their liberation comes together or not at all. Efforts by the DUP to force Sinn Féin back into negotiations to save face with their grassroots over abortion, or by anti-choice elements within Sinn Féin to force the party to return to power-sharing if it means stopping abortion and thereby winning an Irish Language Act, will be watched closely by progressive activists of all stripes.

For now, bolstered by the power and strength of women such as Sarah Ewart, we will celebrate this judgment as a victory for reproductive justice. Women, trans and non-binary people are staking a claim to our autonomy. The backlash by some people is because we are winning.

 Elizabeth Nelson is a writer and activist with the Belfast Feminist Network