Northern Ireland’s Abortion Debate

Stephen Donnan 

Image © Elvert Barnes

Few issues are as divisive as abortion, aside from the death penalty or euthanasia, all deal with the issue of the sanctity of life, and very rarely do issues such as these come before national legislatures. However in the case of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, both authorities currently criminalize abortion. Future Health Minister and current MLA for South Down, Jim Wells, caused a storm of controversy last month by stating that abortion in NI should remain illegal, even in cases of rape and incest. Speaking to the Nolan Show, Mr Wells was quoted as saying: “A termination of a pregnancy should not be the first option in that situation. The other option is that you kill the child who’s a totally innocent victim in this terrible set of circumstances.”

In relation to the issue of abortion legislation, Ireland (both Northern and Republic of) is a strange one. Out of over fifteen major parties across Ireland and dozens of smaller parties, only three have visible pro-choice policies. The Socialist Worker’s Party, the Irish Labour party and Labour in NI are the only parties that are pro-choice, and even with that, Irish Labour are heading for a split in their membership over the issue. Not even the Greens, a mostly proactive party in the area of social rights have reserved abortion as a conscience issue.

Bernie Smyth of Precious Life, an organisation that lobbies to defend existing anti-abortion legislation, had a rather heated radio debate with Alliance party MLA Anna Lo in August, claiming that allowing abortion in cases of rape would create a case of ‘bad law’ in which such legislation could lead to it being used a contraceptive. But what are the facts? 

Recently in the US, Republican Senate hopeful Todd Akin made a fool of himself by claiming, contrary to decades of medical research, that in cases of ‘legitimate rape’ the female body had ways of ‘shutting that whole thing down.’ His critics ranged from President Obama right up to the Presidential hopeful for his own party, Mitt Romney, and quite rightly so. Often it has been said that it is not the place for men to tell women what to do with their bodies, and as a gay man who will probably never have to be confronted with that choice I am inclined to agree with them.

Having been brought up in a strictly Christian household, I am reluctantly pro-choice. I am not in favour of abortion, I don’t know a single person who is, but the law was not written for the good of my own conscience. The use of terms ‘Pro-Life’ and ‘Pro-Choice’ create a black and white attitude towards what is ultimately the most traumatic and difficult decision that a woman will ever have to make. I hate the term Pro-Life. I absolutely detest the implications it has for those who share opposing or even marginally different viewpoints. Does it make them Pro-Death? Of course not, however the power is in the wording, something that has very cleverly slipped under our noses.

The opinions on all sides of the debate are very passionate. I spoke to Krissy, a twenty-two year old single mother from Saintfield in County Down who told me that she “would have eternally regretted” a decision to terminate her pregnancy. Krissy lives with her son Jacob, now three years old, and told me that “There is a lot of pressure on young mothers to get abortions. Adoption and fostering are issues that are often overlooked.”

Lindsay, a twenty-two year old woman from Craigavon in County Armagh spoke to me of her belief being that “abortion should be allowed due to the emotional trauma it can have on both the mother and the child later in life.” She also added that it should not become a method of contraception at the same time.

Claire Johnson of Belfast raised the issue of anonymity, explaining that  “…the fact that we would have to travel to Great Britain removes confidentiality to a certain extent – for example taking a week off work very suddenly, with the stress and expense of travelling thrown in.”

Speaking as an individual, Sinn Fein member Shane McKenna of Monaghan told me quite simply that “Forcing our women to go to England for abortions is one of the biggest scandals in Irish society.” This is in contrast to official Sinn Fein policy which is strongly in favour of anti-abortion legislation. Miche Doherty, an actor from Belfast, expressed similar sentiment, “The lack of abortion provision in NI/RoI is disgraceful. “Let them get the boat to England” is not a policy, it’s a cop-out.”

Belfast-based writer, photographer and co-founder of Belfast Skeptics, Phil O’Kane added “Arguments against abortion, like everything else, need not be based on a religious doctrine, life is precious, and so is the life of the woman involved and the freedom to choose.”

So where does this leave us? It is unlikely that the NI Executive will legislate to legalise abortion in Northern Ireland any time in the near future, unless Direct Rule is reinstated, but that isn’t likely to happen either. With the Labour party in Ireland the only major party pushing for a change in the Irish law to allow for abortion, it is unlikely to happen in the Republic either. The influences of both the Catholic and Protestant Churches in Ireland are massive when it comes to issues such as these, and it’s likely that we will see same-sex marriage legalised in Ireland long before Pro-Choice legislation is ever brought before the Dail or the NI Assembly.

Ultimately what we are talking about is a fundamental disregard for fact, and the lack of trust being given to women to govern their own bodies. I am not advocating for either agenda, as I said this is never a decision I will have to make, however there is certain inequality of opportunity and choice in Irish law, both North and South, and that is fundamentally wrong. I mentioned that I am reluctantly pro-choice, I am a gay man, and as such I am legally prohibited from adopting children of my own in Northern Ireland, and I would much rather be a father to an adopted child than allow abortions to take place. However I am denied that option. So when the DUP’s Jim Wells talks about ‘married couples’ he is not talking about same-sex couples, those in a civil partnership or opposite-sex couples who are cohabiting, there is a very narrow vision within the Christian right as to what constitutes a family, and that is also fundamentally wrong.

I ask myself the question, as someone who opposes abortion personally, if I ever had a daughter and she became pregnant through the result of sexual assault, would I be able to look her in the eye and tell her that I believed she would have to carry the child to term and either support the child or give it up for adoption? Both are incredibly traumatic paths to take for women who become pregnant through rape. Abortion is never a choice that anyone wants to make, ask any woman and they will tell you the same. It is the most traumatic and difficult choice a woman can make, and those who are faced with it will have to live with the decision, whatever that may be, for the rest of their lives. The focus needs to move away from the role of the Church, and the conscience of politicians, and towards the choice of the woman, the role of counselling and medical professionals, and what is ultimately best for both woman and child.

  • Stephen a member of the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland and an LGBT rights activist

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