Women in Northern Ireland must still cross the water to get an abortion, and even setting out the law in an accessible form is controversial. Siún Carden reports
The Abortion Act’s 40th birthday has recently been marked with enormous press coverage about when and to whom abortion should be safely and legally available. Amongst all the fretting about irresponsible women getting themselves knocked up and hoovered out for the sheer, reckless fun of it, there was little or no discussion in the press of the part of the UK where the 1967 Abortion Act has never applied. In Northern Ireland the legal position of abortion is murky and confusing. If you were to ask people in the street in Belfast, you would be told “there’s no abortion here”.
In fact, women are sometimes given abortions here if doctors decide that their life is endangered by the pregnancy, they have severe learning difficulties, or the foetus is abnormal. Occasionally women are also able to get abortions here if they have been raped. These decisions rest with individual doctors, operating in a legal twilight zone. The vast majority of women from Northern Ireland who have an abortion travel across the Irish Sea for the procedure, as do many women from the Republic of Ireland. Since 1967, about 64,000 women from Northern Ireland have had abortions in England or Wales.
If so many women can get abortions elsewhere, why does it matter whether they can have them close to home? The most obvious problem with the current situation is money. Women travelling to the rest of the UK have to pay for private abortions (which start at about £400 from non-profit organizations like Marie Stopes), as well as travel and accommodation costs. This excludes all women who cannot get their hands on several hundred extra quid at short notice. Making a trip away quickly and privately is another problem for many women. This leaves the poor, the young and the vulnerable with no choice at all. A situation where abortion is available only to the wealthy and well-organised should not be acceptable to anyone.
Our peculiar legal situation has more subtle consequences, too. Having to go across the water can make the difference between an abortion being private and an abortion being secret. The distinction might not seem that huge, but for most people, the mental burden is different. If you have an abortion close to your home you may not tell people about it, as it is none of their business. If you travel overseas for a couple of days in order to have an abortion, however, you are unlikely to get away with just not mentioning it to relatives, friends or colleagues. You have to lie about it, again and again and again, in order not to have to deal with others’ reactions, it being, after all, none of their business. This contributes to the feeling over here that abortion is something dirty, furtive and extremely rare, since many people aren’t aware that anyone they know has ever even thought about it.
In 1993, the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights recommended that the government look into clarifying the law. Nothing happened. In 2001, the Family Planning Association initiated proceedings against the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety in Northern Ireland, beginning a long process which resulted, this year, in the publication of draft guidelines for health professionals. These guidelines are nothing to do with changing the law. They simply set out what is legal at the moment. The reaction of our politicians to this draft – which the department was ordered by three court of appeal judges to produce and took three years to write – shows that there is at least one issue on which all our major parties can agree. That is, when it comes to women’s reproductive rights, the less clarity we have, the better.
Now, I am used to being embarrassed by my elected representatives, but I have never been quite so ashamed of the whole squabbling lot of them as when they united, on 22 October 2007, to pass (without a vote) the motion: “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 text of the so-called debate that lead to this is available here and here, if you really want to depress yourself. Remember that the guidelines being examined do not “make abortion more widely available in Northern Ireland”, they just give people a fair chance of understanding how available it is right now. Seeing our politicians vying to distance themselves from this attempt at transparency is just sickening.
While the discussion included such predictable gems as a member (Thomas Buchanan) giving “thanks to almighty God that, thus far, this province has been spared from becoming home to such ungodly legislation, which legitimises the murder of the unborn child, on demand”, and comparing abortion in the UK to the “Jews who were gassed or murdered by Hitler”, it was the failure of anyone to properly challenge such points of view that was most sad. William McCrea’s statement that “everyone in the Chamber would agree that abortion, and anything to do with it, is a tragedy” was never contradicted by anybody. Those less inclined to damn women seeking abortions were, as usual, eager to protect them from the distress and pain of making their own decisions. One member after another agreed that abortion is an emotive subject, about which people have strong views. By saying this, they seem to mean that they can’t possibly be expected to make any actual decisions about it. The outcome means that the Department of Health has to start all over again and try to present the legal facts in a way that is acceptable to the Northern Ireland Assembly. This seems to mean outlining the ambiguous law on abortion in such a way that no-one gets the impression it might ever be OK.
Feminists in the rest of the UK should pay attention to what is happening about abortion in Northern Ireland, because there but for the grace of Parliament goes everyone. No-one in the UK can afford to be complacent about reproductive rights when they are a distant dream for so many UK citizens. When someone talks about reducing the time limit for abortion in Britain, they are talking about reducing it even more for all the women who have to get themselves there from elsewhere in the UK (and the Republic of Ireland) in order to terminate a pregnancy. I am sure there would have been more of a concerted effort to extend the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland if middle-class women were not able to circumvent the system so easily. While the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ attitude to abortion here limits the options for all women, those most affected by the lack of local provision are the least likely to complain.
One assembly member (Alex Easton) pointed out disapprovingly that: “The guidelines that we debate are the result of a determined, and highly organized, campaign by the Family Planning Association, which supports abortion on the grounds that every woman has the right to end an unwanted pregnancy.” Since he is quite right about this, if nothing else, send money, praise and gratitude to the FPA at www.fpa.org.uk.