Just when you thought the laws around abortion in Northern Ireland couldn’t get any more restrictive, members of the Democratic Unionist Party have once again affirmed their unique ability to delve deeply into the dark recesses of antiquated notions on social inequality and highlight how, as a province, we just haven’t quite gone far enough in utilising the tool of oppression to its full potential. This may sound surprising when you consider that this is a country which has enjoyed a rich history of oppression in one form or another for centuries. More recently it is the only place in the UK and Ireland in which LGBT people are still denied marriage rights, and the only place in the UK in which women are still denied healthcare which was afforded to their counterparts in England, Scotland and Wales in 1967. The powers that be in Northern Ireland also managed to grip tightly on to laws against homosexuality and those which permitted marital rape for a tad longer than the rest of the UK. There are people in charge here who have forged careers on the back of keeping whole sections of the population down, and they are very good at it.
Still, when I read a headline containing the words “abortion” and “amendment”, I could only imagine that this was in relation to the recent extensive review which recommended a change in the law to allow abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality. After all, the only laws we look to for guidance on abortion in Northern Ireland at the moment date back to the 1800’s. Unless someone had unearthed something more practical from the 15th century (scarily plausible) this was really the only direction my brain allowed me to take – in what I now realise was a naïve failure to acknowledge the talents of some people in finding medieval methods of control and bringing them to the fore.
In a step away from progress, and several away from actually helping anyone, the DUP chair of the justice committee Alastair Ross, after “careful consideration” by a group of solely men, proposed that abortions could only be performed lawfully at properties owned by the NHS. This would mean that places like the Marie Stopes Clinic in Belfast which offers support, advice and early terminations in the most strict of circumstances during the first nine weeks of pregnancy would be illegal. The amendment proposed that those who administer this care privately and the women who avail of it would both be subject to punishment of up to ten years in prison. According to these people, women’s healthcare is a criminal matter.
We have seen from recent research that the current laws allowing for termination only if a woman’s life is at risk or if there is a risk of permanent or serious damage to her mental or physical health are so vague that women in Northern Ireland are effectively living in a postcode lottery in terms of the care they receive from medical practitioners. How can one categorically determine if damage to mental health will be permanent? How can we categorically deny that pregnancy and childbirth in general constitute a serious risk to physical health?
It is unknown whether or not supporters of this amendment take issue with healthcare provided in the many other private clinics around Northern Ireland or indeed with private healthcare in general, but after reading a summary of the debate it appears they are only concerned with those private clinics which provide reproductive care to women. As proper men of tradition, it would appear that what goes on inside private hip replacement clinics can stay inside private hip replacement clinics, whereas there can’t be a decision made around female reproduction that we shouldn’t all be party to.
Supporters argue that one’s position on abortion is irrelevant and that the amendment simply aims to address regulation gaps what takes place within clinics like Marie Stopes. That the same members subsequently feigned mourning for the 8 million “people” who have lost their lives since the implementation of the 1967 Abortion Act in the rest of the UK somewhat diminishes this position. Similarly, that Marie Stopes has previously agreed to fully co-operate in any regulatory process and operates wholly within Northern Irish law seems to be beside the point. The anti-choice members, many of whom have the power and the authority to implement regulatory guidelines on clinics like Marie Stopes and could have done so years ago, have simply chosen not to. This of course would prevent them from the scaremongering tactic of creating a picture of untold doom awaiting women on the inside of the doors to the clinic on Victoria Street in Belfast – conveniently located, as they point out, just across the street from the bus and railway station in an evil ploy to lure in confused pregnant females off the street with enchanting music and the promise of free handbags, thus ensuring successful terminations all over the show.
At one point in the debate, the anti-choice Paul Givan stated with certainty that those who work for Marie Stopes get paid handsome bonuses for reaching a target of weekly abortions. This they know for sure, despite a moment earlier not knowing anything about what goes on inside the Marie Stopes clinic because it is shrouded in the devil’s shadow. We can only assume this information was garnered from someone who managed to escape the clutches of the clinic and run straight to DUP headquarters to tell the tale. The debate itself took place in Stormont at the convenient time of around 10.45pm – highlighting once again the care and consideration given to this most important of issues.
The proposal clearly showed that those behind it simply do not want women to have safe and legal access to the healthcare they have a right to. It means that they are willing to ignore the thousands of women who will travel to other parts of the UK every year to access this service privately, enduring unnecessary further risk to their emotional and physical wellbeing. That this amendment was defeated in Stormont by a vote of 41-39 is welcome news but offers only limited comfort. Those who voted against this bill and who backed a petition of concern have a duty to be clear on their position on this matter. It would be unfair to vilify one party as the only obstacle to progress on women’s reproductive rights in Northern Ireland when others remain unwilling to make their opposition consistent, clear and strong. The SDLP oppose lifting restrictions on abortion law and Sinn Fein’s Caitriona Ruane began her contribution to the debate by stating that her party is “not in favour of abortion” and opposes extension of the 1967 Abortion Act to the North. Sinn Fein does, however, believe the option of termination should be available in cases of foetal fatal abnormality and rape. On this rare and fleeting occasion I found myself agreeing with the contemptible Jim Wells when he suggested that perhaps Sinn Fein should simply come out as a pro-choice party. Although he says it like it’s a bad thing. How can the party for “equality” continue to generally defend restrictions on women’s reproductive autonomy which limits social mobility, financial security, and health? Or is it the case that the Republic of Ireland need to be one leading the way on this issue too, as some sort of testing ground for what the Catholic electorate in Northern Ireland are willing to tolerate.
After the success of the Marriage Referendum in Ireland last month, much focus is currently on providing marriage rights to LGBT citizens here in the North, and rightfully so. But we ought also to see just as much focus on the fact that women and girls are still suffering under these archaic abortion laws. In an argument similar to that in favour of equal marriage; allowing for safe and legal access to abortion does not mean that you have to have one. And like someone else’s choice of spouse, how a woman takes control of her reproductive life really is no one else’s business. Loving a member of the opposite sex is no reason to deny rights to those who don’t, and loving your children is not a valid reason to force women to continue with a pregnancy against her will. An act which leaders in the UN have recently stated amounts to torture.
Lest those who are now so vocal on marriage equality be accused of oppositional politics or exploiting the voting potential in siding with what is perceived as the majority opinion, there must be a clear effort not only in defeating proposals for further restrictions, but in actively changing the law in favour of free, safe and legal access to abortion for all women and girls in this country. Women are dying because of the intentional imprecision and the lethal restrictions of outdated abortion laws. Many more are suffering emotionally, psychologically, financially and socially under these restrictions. How many women are those in positions of power willing to ignore before they approach the fight for reproductive rights with the voracity and clarity it merits? While those who could do something are procrastinating and attempting to balance on a splintering fence, what this recent proposal has demonstrated is that no such delay is tolerated within camps which will continue to fight resolutely against female bodily autonomy.