BELFAST — It was one of the warmest days of the year, and Ciara was wearing a T-shirt to try to blend in with the vacationers at Belfast airport. But as soon as she boarded her flight to London, she noticed people staring at the dark purple bruises on her arm and the baby bump that stretched the fabric of her shirt.
“I’m sure some of it was paranoia, but I could tell from the way some folks looked at me that they figured out I was traveling for an abortion,” she said. Ciara, who is 32 and has two children, has asked to be identified in this article only by a childhood nickname, to protect her from her abusive former partner, who she said had threatened to kill her if she terminated the pregnancy.
While Ireland voted to legalize abortion last year, Northern Ireland — which is part of Britain — has shown no signs of liberalizing its draconian laws, allowing the procedure only when the mother’s life is in danger.
That has led many women, like Ciara, to travel for abortions, something that can be difficult for those who lack the resources to finance the trip. With some states in the United States — most recently Alabama — passing legislation that mirrors the laws in Northern Ireland, many American women could be just a Supreme Court decision away from finding themselves in a similar position.
Northern Ireland’s legislature has not met since 2017, and in that power vacuum, Britain’s Parliament recently passed a measure that would liberalize the region’s abortion laws in October unless a restored regional government intervenes. Arlene Foster, who leads the region’s largest political force, the ultraconservative Democratic Unionist Party, said this past week that she was determined to restore the assembly before the deadline.
“We strongly believe that it should be elected representatives from Northern Ireland, taking decisions on issues of life and the protection of the unborn child,” she told her local newspaper, The Impartial Reporter.
Emphasizing that her party would “always speak up for the unborn child,” she said that abortion was “one issue where alliances have developed” between some Protestants and Catholics in the region.
Even with the new law in sight, activists say the stigma and deep divisions surrounding the issue will not fade anytime soon. Ciara, for one, felt the pull of those forces.
“I was so sure of my decision before I got on that plane,” she said. “But because of the way we have been conditioned culturally and such, I still spent the whole flight feeling dread and even shame.”
For decades, women in Northern Ireland — even victims of rape and incest, or in cases where fetal abnormalities mean the fetus will not survive outside the womb — have had either to carry the pregnancy to term or travel outside the region for a termination. The police have raided houses and workplaces in search of abortion pills, and anyone caught procuring an abortion in Northern Ireland can face life imprisonment.
Abortion services are fully funded in England, but many women have difficulty making the trip for a variety of reasons — disability, lack of funds for airfare and accommodations, domestic abuse or not being able to find child care. Ciara was assisted by several charities.
While some women in Northern Ireland opt for medical abortions using pills obtained illegally online, that was not an option for Ciara because she would have been taking the medication at home, and when she found out she was pregnant, she was living in an emergency accommodation with an abusive husband.
“We were with a counselor when I told my husband about the idea of having an abortion,” she said. “It was a safe space, or that’s what I thought.”
She soon learned differently.
“When we got back to the hostel, he grabbed me by the arm, put it down on the table and beat it with a metal spatula,” she said. “He said he would have done worse, but he didn’t want to hurt the baby.”
When Ciara went back to the social services alone to report the abuse, she was told she would be moved to a shelter that night. But as she waited for the police to arrive to take her statement, the counselor tried to talk her out of getting an abortion.
“We have a moral conservatism that’s much stronger even than in the south of Ireland,” Emma Campbell, co-chairwoman of the Northern Irish reproductive rights group Alliance for Choice. “We’re operating in a post-conflict, colonial environment where people’s identity is absolutely tied up to their religious upbringing. We’re moving toward secularism, but slowly.”
Activists say that changing the stigma attached to abortion will be much harder than providing the services.
“People are starting to think and talk about it a lot more, but a lot of people around here are still very much under the belief that abortion is murder and that’s that,” said Ashleigh Topley, who in 2013 was forced to carry a fetus to term knowing that it had a fatal abnormality and would not survive.
When Ms. Topley, who lives in the small town of Portadown, found out about the fetal abnormality, she was referred to a specialist hospital in Belfast for a second opinion. She was told that the Belfast hospital would sign off on an abortion. But when she went back to the local hospital trust where she was registered, the consultant immediately dismissed the recommendation, saying, “That’s not going to happen.”
Ms. Topley asked for a psychological assessment because she was under treatment for depression and the law permits abortions if there is a permanent threat to the woman’s mental health. But even before she could meet the psychiatrist, the hospital had reached the conclusion that she would have to go through with the pregnancy.
“There are still so many people who won’t even consider a conversation about it,” Ms. Topley said as she sat cradling a newborn daughter.
“And now one of the biggest challenges will be to break this hierarchy of abortions,” she said. “There are pro-life people who would have been O.K. with me having an abortion because they view mine as ‘worthy,’ because I wanted that child and I wasn’t out wearing a red, lacy thong to attract a one-night stand. People will judge you depending on the way you became pregnant and the reason you don’t want the baby.”
The way the law is enforced has also contributed to the trauma of women seeking to end an unwanted pregnancy. Several women have been prosecuted after police officers raided their homes or workplaces and found pills, including a mother who had helped her 15-year-old daughter order them.
“Her daughter was in a very physically and emotionally abusive relationship, so having weighed up her options, she didn’t want to continue with the pregnancy,” said Grainne Teggart, Amnesty International’s campaigns manager for Northern Ireland, who has been helping the family.
Later, when the teenager went to a counselor about the abusive relationship and mentioned her abortion, she was reported to the police and had her medical file sent to the authorities without her consent.
“What has just passed in Westminster will mean that as of Oct. 22 she will no longer face prosecution,” Ms. Teggart said. “But the trauma cannot be erased.”
Activists worry that even if abortion is decriminalized, the anti-abortion movement will become more aggressive, as in Ireland after the liberalization there, opening fake abortion clinics to lure in women and then talk them out of having an abortion and holding protests outside real clinics.
Having come so close to liberalizing abortion in the past only to come up against familiar hurdles, some women remain skeptical about the new legislation, while others feel angry that they had to go through so much trauma and risk.
“I’m just a bit frustrated by people celebrating — it feels premature, because it’s not done. We need to be cautious,” said Kellie Turtle, a women’s rights activist who traveled to England for an abortion in 2016.
“It felt for such a long time that this was how it was always going to be, and when you put your own experience in that context, it lessens the impact a little bit,” she said. “And now there is actual change coming, it has opened up the hurt I have experienced more.”
“Having looked into the light at the end of the tunnel for so long,” she said, “I look back at my own experience and now, in contrast, it seems darker.”