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Abortion in Europe: Northern Ireland conviction inflames debate

There's one thing that both anti-abortion and abortion-rights activists agree on. There's a shift underway in Europe — in politics, prosecution and protest
A Pro-Choice supporter holds placards in front of the gates of the Irish Parliament building in Dublin on July 10, 2013 ahead of a vote to introduce abortion in limited cases where the mother's life is at risk. (Photo by Peter Muhly/AFP/Getty)
A Pro-Choice supporter holds placards in front of the gates of the Irish Parliament building in Dublin on July 10, 2013 ahead of a vote to introduce abortion in limited cases where the mother's life is at risk. 

There's one thing that both anti-abortion and abortion-rights activists agree on. There's a shift underway in Europe — in politics, prosecution and protest. Battle lines are drawn for what threatens to be a nasty fight, with both sides taking cues from the U.S. In Part One of a series, NBC News examines the debate.


Remember Donald Trump's suggestion that women be punished for abortions? Across the Atlantic it isn't just a throwaway suggestion from a politician. It's now a reality in a corner of the U.K. — and a chilling reminder to one woman.

"It could've happened to me," K. says.

Life Imprisonment

The act that made abortion legal in England, Scotland and Wales for women up to 24 weeks pregnant does not apply to another part of the U.K. — Northern Ireland.

That means that there is a near-total ban on abortion there, even in cases of rape, incest or fetal abnormalities. Terminations only are allowed under strict criteria: if the pregnancy threatens the mother's life or would adversely affect her mental health.

Courts in Northern Ireland can inflict the harshest criminal penalties for abortion of anywhere in Europe — up to life imprisonment.

That's how it came to pass that a 21-year-old woman was convicted this month of having an abortion. She was given a three-month suspended sentence.

Europe's Abortion Fight: Women Share Their Stories

The case sent shockwaves throughout Europe, sparking protests and the solidarity movements behind the hashtag #NotACriminal. On Wednesday, a mother accused of procuring abortion pills for her teenage daughter is also due to go on trial.

Most of Europe offers easy access to abortion — but a handful of countries that don't have almost simultaneously been thrust into the spotlight.

"There's an assault on women's rights really across the world at the minute," says Goretti Horgan, a Northern Ireland-based pro-abortion activist and university lecturer.

The convicted woman told the court she had tried to travel to England for an abortion, but just didn't have the money so she ordered pills online.

Her story rang eerily familiar to K. — who said one different decision could have led her to the same outcome.

'It Was Just the Wrong Time'

When K. found out she was pregnant at the end of 2014, the mother-of-two decided she wanted to get an abortion.

"At that time my youngest was born and he'd only just started sleeping through," the 27-year-old said. She also was still grappling with post-natal depression and trying to get her eldest son, who has special needs, into preschool.

"I was in a very fragile place," she said. "When everything was settling and getting back to normal, another baby would've just upset everything ... It was just the wrong time."

K. knew she wanted to get an abortion, but ending her pregnancy was from easy.

She came across an online service that ships abortion pills around the world but feared prosecution if anything went wrong and she needed to see a doctor.

"I was just worried that they would report me to the police if they suspected that I had had an abortion," she said. "I was worried that they'd find some reason to take my children away."

"I turned into a zombie, I couldn't get out of bed," she added, recalling her despair at trying to find a solution.

RELATED: Shuttered: the end of abortion access in red America

K. decided to fly to the English city of Liverpool — "traveling was the least worst option" — but covering the cost was a huge strain for the student and her husband.

"We were just kind of panicking and working out ways to cut our bills and try to make the money up for it," she explained.

She house-sat so her family could piggyback off food and utilities but the "worst thing" was having to withdraw her eldest from pre-school — they'd enrolled him early due to his speech problems.

But the scrimping and saving didn't come up with enough money for the procedure, only the flight.

Finding a way to end the pregnancy without spending money consumed her.

"It was all I could think about," she explained. "I was still on anti-depressants from my post-natal depression — I was thinking how many of those could I take to end the pregnancy without doing permanent damage, whether I could throw myself down the stairs just enough to not hurt myself but to end the pregnancy."

"There's no reason why I should have been that desperate," she added.

Mingling Accents

Northern Ireland's strict abortion laws prompt thousands of women each year to travel to England in order to procure a termination.

K.'s desperation over the cost was due to another geographical anomaly: Women living in other parts of the U.K. can receive abortions for free under public healthcare, but that doesn't apply to the Northern Irish. They have to pay.

Abortion providers like the Marie Stopes Clinics and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service offer discounted prices for women like K. — but note that doesn't address the larger issue.

"We're proud and pleased to be able to help women where we can but ultimately these women deserve services at home," said Clare Murphy, director of external affairs for the British Pregnancy Advisory Service.

In the absence of legislative change, abortion clinics' waiting rooms in England echo with Northern Irish tones — but they mingle with the brogues of the nation to the south. One hospital's waiting room has even become nicknamed "The Shamrock Suite."

Tragedy and Outrage

A sorrowful sisterhood has been born between women from Northern Ireland — which is part of the U.K. — and the neighboring Irish Republic. Women there have long been grappling with legal barriers of their own.

"There isn't really a difference between Northern Ireland and the republic — there's different legal systems but the effect is the same," Horgan said. "The effect is that you can't get an abortion except maybe to save your life."

Abortion was outlawed in the Irish Republic until 2013, when the death of a young woman named Savita Halappanavar prompted a slight relaxation of the ban.

Halappanavar, a 31-year-old dentist, died from septic shock at an Irish hospital after being denied an abortion though doctors agreed she was miscarrying at 17 weeks.

Outrage over her death — decried by womens' groups and activists as preventable — led the Irish Republic to adopt an exception to its abortion ban, allowing terminations if the pregnancy poses a "real and substantial risk" to a woman's life.

The provision takes into account the risk of suicide, but healthcare professionals say the criteria is poorly defined.

The punishment for procuring an abortion in the Irish Republic, or helping someone to do so, is a fine or up to 14 years in prison. There are also restrictions on providing information about abortion services.

That's why Irish women, too, have been going to great lengths to get abortions — trying to obtain pills online or joining in the maternity migration and looking abroad for the procedures.

More than 5,520 of the over 190,000 abortions recorded in 2014 in England and Wales were given to women who listed addresses outside of those countries — 15 percent of whom gave addresses in Northern Ireland and 68 percent in the Irish Republic, according to the most recent figures from the U.K. Office of National Statistics.

At least 10 a day entered the U.K. from the Irish Republic to access abortion services in 2014, according to the Irish Family Planning Association. They were among the 163,514 Irish women to seek abortions abroad between between January 1980 and December 2014.

'My Dead Baby'

Julie O'Donnell was one of them.

The restaurant manager was "over the moon" when she found out she was pregnant. Her young son Ben "desperately wanted a little brother and sister."

The six-year-old was there when O'Donnell went in for her scan — and picked up on the mood in the room when the technician went quiet. Instead of being able to celebrate over whether she was having a boy or girl, O'Donnell found herself in her "worst nightmare."

The baby had anencephaly; it was missing a major portion of its skull.

"Zero chance of survival," she told NBC News.

O'Donnell said she knew almost immediately there was "no way" she could carry on with the pregnancy only to watch her baby die.

"People congratulating you, coming up to rub your belly, 'When are you due?' ... Mentally and emotionally it was not something I was prepared to do," she explained.

But when O'Donnell told the doctors, they said their hands were tied by the Irish Republic's abortion laws.

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