Reactionary forces in Northern Ireland block abortion reform
An alliance of evangelical Protestants, the Catholic church and a majority of Northern Ireland’s Assembly’s politicians has prevented the UK Abortion Act of 1967 from being extended to the region.
According to the Guardian, Northern Ireland’s first female leader Arlene Foster, above, vowed to maintain the Democratic Unionist party’s opposition to any reform of the province’s notoriously strict abortion laws.
After being elected DUP leader unopposed, Foster told the Guardian:
I would not want abortion to be as freely available here as it is in England and don’t support the extension of the 1967 act.
But she conceded the Northern Ireland executive, which she will co-lead with Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness, will have to carefully consider a landmark judgment in which the high court ruled that denying abortions to women who had become pregnant through rape was a breach of British and European human rights laws.
Despite her statement in defence of the existing law, Foster’s acknowledgement of the November court ruling suggests politicians in Northern Ireland are also preparing for judicial decisions that would force the Stormont assembly’s hand and potentially introduce some liberalisation.
Commenting on the ruling, Foster said:
It is impossible not to be moved by some couples’ heartbreaking experiences. Many of the cases are extremely complex, and increasingly so as medical practice advances. Along with executive colleagues I will be taking time to consider carefully Mr Justice Horner’s judgment.
Foster declined to answer specific questions on whether she would accept limited exceptions to the near-total ban on abortion. She would not say whether she would support – as some have campaigned for – exceptions to be introduced for women who became pregnant through rape or incest, and those whose baby had fatal foetal abnormalities.
Foster pointed out that terminations did take place in certain circumstances and expressed sympathy for women with crisis pregnancies.
I recognise this is a deeply personal issue for people, which deserves to be treated with the utmost sensitivity and compassion. The legal position in Northern Ireland is often misunderstood, and many don’t appreciate it can permit abortion when the woman’s physical or mental health is affected.
The Stormont assembly has the lowest level of female representatives out of the devolved parliaments, and only a fifth of members supports a relaxation of the near-total ban on abortions.
Last year one of Foster’s DUP colleagues, Alastair Ross, attempted to further tighten the ban. Ross tabled a motion to ban private clinics such as Marie Stopes from offering non-medical terminations for women pregnant up to nine weeks. The combined votes of Sinn Féin, the Alliance party, the Greens and liberal unionist party N21 vetoed the DUP member’s proposal.
Eileen Calder, co-founder of the Rape Crisis and Sexual Abuse Centre in Belfast, said that if abortion were permitted on the grounds of rape it could lead to situations where innocent men faced false rape allegations.
I think it is totally wrong to say that perhaps we should allow for terminations on the grounds of rape only. Many women in unwanted and crisis pregnancies might go to their GP or local hospital and say they were raped and demand an abortion in those circumstances.
In these cases the onus would be on medics to then report a crime to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, which in turn could lead to innocent men who get women pregnant after consensual sex being arrested, questioned and possibly charged over a crime they did not commit.
Accusing the Northern Ireland assembly of “political cowardice”, Calder added that:
Only the extension of the 1967 act and full equal rights for women like they enjoy in the rest of the UK was the way forward.
Hat tip: Peter Sykes