The BBC’s new two-part drama Three Families opens inside the Belfast courthouse as Theresa (Sinéad Keenan) is informed that she is on trial for illegally procuring abortion pills, a crime under the Offences Against the Persons Act 1861. We follow the vastly different lives of three characters over the subsequent two hours, whose experiences are woven together through this particular law.
Set in 2015, at the tail end of the ongoing criminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland, we meet three families who bear the brunt of the draconian laws against abortion in the state. A couple desperate for their first child, only to be told 20 weeks into the pregnancy that they will likely die of a fatal fetal abnormality. A mother of a 15-year-old buys her daughter abortion pills online, a crime in the eyes of the law that can carry a five-year prison sentence. A woman with a history of mental illness is denied a termination by her doctor.
Equal parts heartbreaking and infuriating, the stories in Three Families, deftly told by the Bafta-winning team that previously produced the Rochdale grooming scandal dramatisation,Three Girls, evokes sympathy to all the women and rage at the laws that put them in these positions. Sadly, it’s a rage that doesn’t subside as the drama draws to an end. Thankfully though, there are now pro-choice laws across Northern Ireland, the same can’t be said, however, for pro-choice services.
In 2019, an amendment to the Northern Ireland Bill was meant to make access to abortion in Northern Ireland safe, legal, and local, but since its decriminalisation on 31 March 2020 – services have been anything but easily available. The new legal framework for abortion services implemented on the same day states it is up to Stormont’s Department of Health to commission full services, however, this has stalled due to disagreements within the five-party executive in Stormont. In normal times, a lack of abortion services would be infuriating, but during a global pandemic, it is unconscionable.
An Amnesty International representative referred to the situation as a “postcode lottery of access to abortion”. In the absence of commissioning, four of the five health trusts have still managed to set up unfunded services, but these are reportedly led by fewer than a dozen medics. This meant that the Northern Trust had to pause its services between October and January, and the Western Health Trust has just announced it is suspending its early medical abortion service.
Even while government advice is to “stay at home” to save lives and protect the NHS, those seeking vital services in Northern Ireland are having to make difficult and potentially dangerous journeys. By comparison, abortion access across the rest of the United Kingdom has vastly improved since Covid-19 and those seeking a termination before 10 weeks can take safely take both abortion pills in their own home.
The continued delay in providing abortion services in Northern Ireland means there are numerous tragic stories like those we see in Three Families amid the chaos brought on by Covid-19. Labour MP Stella Creasy said 100 people in Northern Ireland had been refused terminations in the past year and Grassroots group Alliance for Choice Derry has said they are aware of at least two cases, during lockdown, of suicide attempts as a result of lack of access to abortion services.
Throughout Three Families we see the sense of shame and secrecy that envelops the women: they google information on abortion pills in the dead of night, hang up their phone calls to Marie Stopes as soon as someone enters the room, and worry endlessly about who may know what. But their powerful stories, all based on real cases, will go some way to dispelling ongoing myths and misconceptions, and most importantly will tackle the stigma that still surrounds abortion.
The show is a timely reminder that the shame around abortion should not fall with the hundreds of women across Northern Ireland accessing vital healthcare every year, but to the politicians in Stormont, who place barriers in the way of these vital services.
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