Why Northern Ireland Women Need Access to Abortion: The Abortion Debate Rages on, but There Is an Urgent Need to Clarify the Law

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ON A TUESDAY EVENING IN JULY, Gordon Brown summoned a Labour Member of Parliament to issue a warning that any move to extend the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland would put the Northern Irish administration at risk.

The MP had been among the leaders of an all-party group that had signaled its intention to submit an amendment to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill the following morning giving women in the north of Ireland the same access to abortion as women in England, Scotland and Wales. The amendment would have been debated the following week.

The MPs' resolve to press the issue had been stiffened by briefings on the plight of women forced to travel to Britain and pay for a procedure that is freely available to women living there.

It is this factor that underpins both the class bias in the North in relation to access to abortion and the disproportionate number of Northern Irish women who have later abortions. The less well-off a woman is, the greater the difficulty she is likely to experience organizing an abortion and the longer the process is likely to take. One result is the high probability that working-class women from Northern Ireland are more likely than any other category of women in the United Kingdom to have abortions after 16 weeks.

Brown's pitch was that an amendment sponsored by leading Labour backbenchers would be seen as somehow emanating from the government and, especially if it succeeded, that a Northern Ireland party looking for an excuse might use it to walk away from the power-sharing administration set up after the war in Northern Ireland ended. His warning carried a message that the position of the executive and the assembly was more precarious than it might have seemed to MPs. He also counseled that if the amendment were pressed, one or more of the political parties would never believe a government assurance again--the implication being that an assurance along these lines already had been given.

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The plan to table the amendment was abandoned the next morning. A glut of other amendments forced postponement of debate on the bill until October. In the meantime, the present incoherent, obscurantist, anomalous and cowardly position persists.

Cowardly because currently nobody can say with confidence what the operative law on abortion in Northern Ireland is and none of the main parties is willing to seek or work toward clarification. Abortions take place in Northern Ireland every year--for reasons of severe fetal abnormality, for example--which, if put to the test of the law, would be declared illegal. Meanwhile, abortions which would be legal--on ground of serious threat to the health of the woman, for instance--are not performed.

Confusion about the legal rights and duties of medical professionals has combined with fear of religious fundamentalism to produce a situation in which even abortions that have been declared legal by the courts after examination of all the circumstances are not performed in the North, with the woman or girl concerned being forced to travel to Britain--as in the 1993 case of K, a 14-yearold--to exercise rights that she is fully entitled to at home. A political system that allows such blatant contradiction in a matter touching on the most sensitive rights of vulnerable people has no self-respect and deserves no respect.

We might reasonably speculate that if it were men who got pregnant, the matter would be sorted out in no time at all, without need to worry Westminster.

The furtive evasions on the legal situation were on public display in New York the same week when an official of the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) was left hanging in the wind as she tried to explain Northern Ireland's current abortion regime at hearings of the committee overseeing the UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. …