A Northern Irish woman who was about to go on trial for buying abortion pills has had all charges against her dropped
The woman had spent the last six years waiting to go on trial for helping her daughter access an illegal abortion.
On Wednesday morning, Belfast Crown Court formally dropped charges against the woman one month before she was due to go on trial.
Up until this week, abortion was banned in almost all cases in Northern Ireland and an illegal termination was punishable by up to a life sentence in prison. Women could only access a legal abortion if their life or health was at serious risk. In most cases, women either travelled to England or ordered illegal abortion pills online. The same drugs, which can induce a miscarriage under 10 weeks' gestation, were also widely used in Ireland when abortion was still banned here.
The woman, who cannot be named, was accused of buying abortion pills for her then 15-year-old daughter in 2013. It is understood that the woman was reported to police by a GP and child and adult mental health services.
For the past six years, the woman was waiting to go on trial for buying abortion pills and her case was due to be heard next month. On Monday night, abortion was decriminalised in Northern Ireland through a law passed at Westminster. As part of the major change in the law, the British government announced a moratorium on investigations or prosecutions for abortion-related offences.
On Wednesday morning, the charges against the mother were formally dropped at Belfast Crown Court. In a statement shortly afterwards, the woman said that her emotions were "all over the place."
“I find it hard to put into words how I am feeling. For the first time in six years I can go back to being the mother I was without the weight of this hanging over me every minute of every day," the woman said in a statement to Amnesty International.
“I’m so thankful that the change in the law will allow other women and girls to deal with matters like this privately in their own family circle. I can finally move on with my life.”
Amnesty International had worked with the woman throughout her case, and had fought to have the charges dropped.
Grainne Teggart, Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland campaign manager, said that the charges being dropped was a "huge relief."
"For six years this mother has been treated as a criminal just for helping her daughter access abortion pills that are available on the NHS in every other part of the UK. Now she can finally put the trauma of this ordeal behind her," Ms Teggart said.
“Thankfully, our new abortion law means that no other women will have to be hauled through the courts and face criminal prosecution. This is the beginning of a more caring and compassionate Northern Ireland.”
In 2016, a 21-year-old Northern Irish woman was given a suspended sentence for buying abortion pills. It is understood that she had been reported to police by her housemate. In 2017, a couple were formally cautioned after they were investigated for ordering the same abortion pills online.
When abortion was banned in Ireland, many abortion pills sent to women in the south came via Northern Irish addresses to evade Irish customs officers from seizing them. In 2017, the PSNI raided a number of addresses and started questioning activists suspected of ordering the pills online.
Now that abortion is decriminalised in the north, any women who continue to use abortion pills bought online will not risk being arrested if they tell a doctor that they've taken the drugs.
It is expected that legal abortion services will be available in Northern Ireland from March. In the interim, any woman who needs to access a termination can have the cost of her flights and an abortion in Britain covered by the UK government.
Any woman in Northern Ireland who needs to travel for an abortion can call 0333 234 2184.