Opinion: abortion - our laws are in urgent need of reform
Abortion has been one of the very few issues that, until recently, united politicians in Northern Ireland throughout decades of conflict. A refusal to acknowledge women’s needs, uphold women’s rights and challenge the status quo resulted in prolonged political inaction and neglect from our representatives at Stormont (and direct rule) when it came to reforming the law on abortion in this region.
However, an announcement last week from the Department of Justice over plans to bring forward legislation on abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality coupled with growing public and political support represent important steps forward.
We at Amnesty recognise that the law must change. Amnesty’s My Body My Rights campaign, launched last year, aims to bring about change to laws, policy and practice on access to abortion in Northern Ireland.
Let’s recall what the law is here. It’s the 1861 Offences against the Person Act which is, in the main, the legislation governing women’s bodies on this issue, predating all relevant human rights treaties by a century. Abortions are only lawful in extremely restricted circumstances, namely where there is a risk to the life or long-term physical and mental health of the woman. Northern Ireland has the harshest criminal penalty for abortion anywhere in Europe - life imprisonment both for the woman undergoing an unlawful abortion and for anyone assisting her. That sentence even applies in cases where the pregnancy is as a result of rape or incest, and (until the law changes) in cases of fatal foetal impairment. This grim distinction for Northern Ireland should be a long overdue wake-up call to our politicians.
Women, finding themselves in the most distressing of circumstances, shouldn’t also have to face the threat of imprisonment simply for making a deeply personal choice about their pregnancies. Last week’s announcement by the Department of Justice of plans to legislate in cases of fatal foetal abnormality will help some of the 1,000-plus women every year who are forced to leave Northern Ireland just to access healthcare to which they should be entitled. Travel only adds to the trauma the women experience.
The Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly must now seize the opportunity to enable women whose pregnancies have a fatal foetal abnormality (i.e. where the pregnancy isn’t compatible with life) to access abortion services at home. To fail to legislate for change would be a gross violation of women’s rights and expose our politicians as fundamentally lacking in compassion. Despite progress being made in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, the Department of Justice has stated it has no plans to legislate in this Assembly term to allow access to abortion when the pregnancy is a result of sexual crime such as rape and incest. Let me be clear, forcing a woman to continue with a pregnancy which has been forced upon her through sexual violence is inhumane. Women deserve the freedom to make deeply personal choices about their pregnancies.
While it’s vital to address the human rights violations women in NI experience, law reform is not the only development we need to enable access to termination of pregnancy services. It has taken the Department of Health over ten years to finalise and publish termination of pregnancy guidance which will advise the medical profession which abortions are legally permissible and we’re still waiting. Previous draft versions of this guidance helped instill a climate of fear and reinforce a threat of prosecution amongst our medical profession. Amnesty recently launched the report ‘Northern Ireland: Barriers to accessing abortion services’ which found that, due to restrictive laws, harsh criminal penalties and a lack of guidance from the Department of Health, medical professionals are fearful over providing lawful abortions, leading to a “postcode lottery” for women trying to access abortion advice and services across Northern Ireland. This has resulted in women in certain health trust areas, such as western and rural areas, being unable to access termination of pregnancy services.
Amnesty has raised the ‘postcode lottery issue with the Department of Health. We’ve called on DHSSPS to publish termination of pregnancy guidance without further delay and expect that it will fix this ‘postcode lottery’ problem and ensure women’s rights to timely and appropriate health care are upheld regardless of where they live in Northern Ireland.
Our current and previous health ministers’ views on abortion are well known and do not favour change. We have to be concerned when faced with those entrusted with the health of the region, who take a position on a vital part of women’s healthcare that flies in the face of women’s rights and indeed public opinion.
The public view
A clear majority of people in Northern Ireland - men and women of all ages, all political leanings and of all religious persuasions and none - want to see the law changed. This was the message which came back loud and clear from public opinion research conducted by Millward Brown Ulster last September. Seven out of ten people support changes to abortion law. Interestingly, public support for change is highest in cases where the pregnancy is a result of rape and incest.
The research, showed that:
- 69% of people think the law in Northern Ireland should make access to abortion available where the pregnancy is the result of rape;
- 68% of people think the law in Northern Ireland should make access to abortion available where the pregnancy is the result of incest
- 60% of people think the law in Northern Ireland should make access to abortion available where the foetus has a fatal abnormality.
Ministers and legislators from all parties should listen to their voters.
It is often claimed that religion plays a major role in Northern Ireland and upholding women’s rights to health and life would fly in the face of people’s deeply-held religious beliefs. And yet, the approval for access to abortion in the case of rape is supported by 73% of Protestants and 62% of Catholics, and in cases of incest 71% of Protestants and 62% of Catholics.
Access to abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality is supported by 65% of Protestants and 52% of Catholics.
It seems that politicians and religious leaders don’t always represent the views of those they claim to. Northern Ireland’s politicians have shirked their responsibilities over women’s health for far too long. It’s time for change.
Grainne Teggart is the Northern Ireland Campaigner for Amnesty International and heads their My Body My Rights campaign amongst others.
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