Discrimination and denial: Abortion in Northern Ireland

As in the South, abortion rights in Northern Ireland remain stalled. While attitudes to sex and sexuality have changed dramatically over the last 20 years, politicians of all hues remain afraid of issues to do with sex – and they are most afraid of abortion.

The 1967 Abortion Act, on which other parts of the United Kingdom rely for law in relation to termination of pregnancy, was never extended to Northern Ireland. Abortion law in the North is still bound by the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, which includes life imprisonment for any woman found to have terminated a pregnancy.

The law in the North was affected by the X case as, in the years following the Supreme Court judgement, a number of unhappily pregnant minors in the care system threatened suicide if they were not allowed to go to England for abortions. Because they were wards of court, permission had to be sought from the High Court for them to travel. The judgements in those cases, and in a number of subsequent cases involving vulnerable young women indicated that abortion is legal in Northern Ireland under the terms of the 1937 Bourne Judgement, which said that it is legal to end a pregnancy that would leave a woman “a mental or physical wreck”. Following these judgements, the law on abortion in Northern Ireland was said to be “so uncertain that it violates the standards of international human rights law”. In 2001, the Family Planning Association sought a judicial review of the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS)’s unwillingness to issue guidance on when abortion is legal in the region.  In 2004, the Court of Appeal said that the DHSSPS must issue guidance in relation to the termination of pregnancy in Northern Ireland and investigate the difficulties in obtaining services for the legal termination of pregnancy.

The DHSSPS issued guidelines early in 2007, allowing abortion when a woman's mental or physical health is in 'grave' danger of 'serious and permanent damage'. In October 2007, then Assembly Health Committee chair, Iris Robinson proposed: ‘That this Assembly opposes the introduction of the proposed guidelines on the termination of pregnancy in Northern Ireland; believes that the guidelines are flawed; and calls on the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to abandon any attempt to make abortion more widely available in Northern Ireland.’ The DUP, Sinn Fein and SDLP supported the motion while Ulster Unionists opposed and Alliance had a free vote.

The Assembly’s Health Committee subsequently wrote to the Health Minister stating that it ‘believes that the starting point for the Guidance should have been a clear statement that abortion is illegal in Northern Ireland’. The letter went on to ‘fully endorse’ the response to the Guidance by Professor John McKeown, submitted by the Catholic Lawyers’ group, which argued that: ‘The starting point of the Guidance should have been a clear statement of the illegality of abortion in Northern Ireland: that it is a crime punishable by a maximum of life imprisonment …The Guidance should then have recalled the central if not sole purpose of this prohibition: the protection of the unborn child, a purpose which has informed the law against abortion for over 700 years. Only when the rule had been clearly stated should the scope of the exception have been considered.’

A new draft set of guidelines, allowing abortion only if a woman’s life is in immediate danger, was issued during the summer months of 2008 and, following attempts by the Assembly Health Committee to again amend them, were issued in March 2009 as guidance to all doctors and medical staff. The Guidance was explicit that abortion is not legal in the case of rape or foetal abnormality. However, that Guidance was withdrawn also, following a judicial review taken by the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child. The revised guidance was issued for consultation in July 2010, with a final date for responses to the consultation of 22 Oct 2010. A year later, the new DUP Minister for Health, Edwin Poots replied to a written Assembly question on when the Guidance would be published with the statement “I am currently considering the Guidance on the Termination of Pregnancy and as yet, no date has been set for its publication” (AQW 1943/11-15). We are still waiting.

So, if the Assembly is unable to agree that women in the North should have the right to life-saving abortions, there seems little hope that women here will have the right to self-determination anytime soon. Abortion has always been a class issue, and one of the more shocking aspects of the “debates” about abortion in the North has been the attitude of politicians towards women who want to, but cannot, get the money together to pay for abortions in England. Jim Wells of the DUP, for example, said on the BBC’s Hearts and Minds programme in June 2000 that if abortion was made available on the NHS, there would be about a third more women having abortions than do so in England. This ready acquiescence to the effective existence of one law for the rich and another for the poor demonstrates the hypocrisy of our politicians.

There are positive signs, though. More and more women are taking control of their bodies themselves by going on the internet and getting the abortion pill to take in the privacy of their own homes. Medical Abortion (the abortion pill or MA) is transforming women’s lives across the globe. The marked drop in the number of women who die from backstreet abortions is almost entirely down to the fact that Misprostol, a drug which is used to treat ulcers, is available now in markets in the cities of most developing countries. Up to 9 (and probably 12 weeks) of pregnancy, a woman has only to take some pills to bring on what is effectively an early miscarriage. For those with access to the internet, it is possible through Women on Web to have an email consultation with a doctor who will prescribe the medication for them. Women on Web also have a 24-hour helpline that women who have any worries can use at any time.

The criminalisation of abortion North and South means that, theoretically, women who cause an abortion themselves are liable to up to life imprisonment. However, the threat of prosecution is not as great as we might think. There is a good deal of evidence that neither jurisdiction wants the public debate that would arise from the prosecution of such a woman. I suspect that neither do the anti-abortionists – it certainly ruins their propaganda about abortion being about fully-developed foetuses. The last thing they want people to realise is that for most women it could be just like bringing on a late period.

This piece is about abortion rights but it would be wrong to finish without reference to the fact that for growing numbers of women in Ireland North and South the decision to have an abortion is not a ‘choice’ but is forced on them by a catastrophic economic situation that is not of their making. In the 2007 Assembly debate Caral Ní Chuilin said ‘Sinn Féin’s view is that the way to tackle crisis pregnancies and abortions is through comprehensive sex education, full access to affordable childcare and comprehensive support services that include financial support for single parents.’ Yet, five years on, the North still does not have a childcare strategy, still less affordable or accessible childcare. And far from providing better financial support for single parents, Sinn Féin and other Assembly parties have cut the living standards of lone parents and their children. Since last October, Housing Benefit for all benefit claimants has seen significant cuts while lone parents whose youngest child has reached its sixth birthday must look for employment.

Our politicians might talk about ‘family values’, but they refuse to support families. {jathumbnailoff}

Image top: mag3737.