This week the High Court in Belfast granted a judicial review of Northern Ireland’s abortion law. The 1967 Abortion Act, which legalised abortion in England, Scotland and Wales – or, to be more precise, provided a legal defence for those carrying out the operation in certain circumstances – specifically excluded Northern Ireland from its provisions. Today, abortion is legal in Northern Ireland only if a woman’s life is at risk or if pregnancy would have an adverse effect on her physical or mental health that is both ‘real and serious’ and ‘permanent or long term’. Neither rape nor a lethal foetal abnormality is, in the eyes of the law, by itself a reason for an abortion. And certainly not the desire of a woman to terminate her pregnancy.
One of the first articles I ever wrote for a national newspaper was back in 1994 for the Independent on Sunday on the plight of women in Northern Ireland seeking termination. Last year, after a High Court ruling that women from Northern Ireland were not entitled to free abortion care in England, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service hauled that 20-year old article out of its archive and observed of it:
Change the date in the top right hand corner of this and despite being 20 years old the entire article could quite easily be taken from a paper over the weekend. You wouldn’t even need to go to the hassle of getting some new quotes from politicians – the excuses and, to put it politely, misleading statements about the lack of support for abortion among the general population are still trotted out.
So, I am republishing here my article from November 1994. It is, of course, dated; yet as the BPAS noted, little seems actually to have changed in two decades. And that is what is most depressing.
‘It’s one thing that unites us’
Independent on Sunday, 13 November 1994
Barbara Watson is a staff nurse in the paediatric ward of Belfast’s Royal Victoria Hospital. She is also chair of the Ulster Unionist Party in the strongly Protestant South Antrim area – not a person you would expect to be sympathetic to the views of the Irish government. Yet, on one issue at least, you would be wrong. ‘The one thing about a united Ireland that wouldn’t worry me’, she says, ‘is the abortion law. I would prefer it if the law in the South applied to the North.’
In the often tortuous politics of Northern Ireland, few issues can surprise the outsider as much as abortion. Not only is opposition to it one of the few issues that unites Catholic and Protestant leaders, but Protestant opposition often strains support for union with Britain. ‘We might have been fighting and killing ourselves for years’, says Joe Hendron of John Hume’s SDLP, MP for the predominantly Catholic West Belfast, ‘but we are united when it comes to opposing abortion.’
When Parliament passed the 1967 Abortion Act, it specifically excluded Northern Ireland. Instead, abortion is still outlawed in the North by the same piece of Victorian legislation – the 1861 Offences Against the Persons Act – which applies in the South. Under the Act, anyone performing, attempting or assisting an abortion ‘shall be guilty of felony’ and ‘liable to be kept in penal servitude for life’. It is an irony of Irish politics that while Irish law on abortion is based on a piece of British legislation, Protestants in the North look to the South for a lead on the issue. ‘Abortion is the big guilty secret of Northern Ireland’, says Audrey Simpson of the Northern Ireland Family Planning Association.
In practice, courts in the North have declared abortion to be legal under certain circumstances. But so fearful are doctors of the uncertainty of the law that few are willing to carry out operations, even with judicial support. The case of ‘K’ is a good illustration of the confusion and trauma that the question evokes.
K is a 13-year old girl from County Antrim who became pregnant last year while living in a children’s home. She threatened to kill herself if she was refused an abortion and tried to slash her wrists. Her father agreed to her request, but her mother refused and the case eventually went to court. The judge ruled that an abortion was both legal and in the interests of K’s welfare. In spite of this not a single doctor in Northern Ireland would perform the operation. One obstetrician who gave evidence said, ‘Unfortunately under Northern Ireland law as it now stands, I am unable to perform this termination.’ K had to be taken to Liverpool for her abortion.
For most women who need an abortion, the only recourse is, as it was for K, a journey to a clinic in England. Two thousand women make the trip every year: more than 50,000 since 1967. According to Audrey Simpson, one woman in seven in the North is expected to come to England for an abortion sometime in her life.
Beth comes from Andersonstown in West Belfast. She is a single mother with a six-year-old daughter. Two years ago she became pregnant after she was raped. In the prevailing climate, Beth could not talk to anyone about abortion, let alone have one in Northern Ireland. She had to make her own arrangements for a termination in England – and had to find the £500 it cost for the travel, accommodation and the operation. ‘I couldn’t borrow from family or friends because they would want to know what it was for. So I took out a loan.’ Two years on Beth is still paying it back.
‘I arranged for the abortion for a Saturday, so it was like a weekend away’, she says. ‘Luckily I had lived in London so I knew people there and my family weren’t suspicious. But I really, really wanted someone to come with me, to be with me. I spent two days alone in a clinic. It was frightening.’
Amy comes from a small Protestant community in County Antrim. Like Beth, when she became pregnant she simply had no ideas what to do. ‘Nobody talks about these things around here’, she says. She eventually got in touch with the FPA who put her in contact with a sympathetic doctor, who referred her to a clinic in London. Like Beth, Amy had to invent a story to cover a three-day trip to London. ‘I told my family I was going for a job interview. I still don’t know if they believed me.’ The trip was traumatic. Amy had never been more than 20 miles from home before. For both Amy and Beth, coming from small, close-knit communities, the strain of lying and the terror of being found out was overwhelming.
Politicians on both sides of the water continue to pretend that the problem does not exist. Virginia Bottomley, the Secretary of State for Health, has dismissed demands that the abortion law should be extended to Northern Ireland. ‘Abortion is offensive to the overwhelming majority of those in the province’, she told Parliament. ‘All soundings of opinion have made it clear that there is no will in Northern Ireland for such change’.
In fact there are signs that popular opinion in the North is changing. A survey conducted this year by Ulster Marketing Surveys for the Birth Control Trust showed that 79 per cent of respondents (including 67 per cent of Catholics) favoured abortion to maintain the mental or physical health of the woman, 72 per cent for cases of rape or incest, and 59 per cent in cases of major foetal handicap. Perhaps more surprisingly, more than a third would legalize abortion in cases of extreme poverty or where the woman did not want another child.
Whatever the changes in popular opinion, however, Ulster politicians show no signs of wavering. Indeed Joe Hendon, a doctor as well as an MP, dismisses the very idea that 2000 women from Northern Ireland have to travel to England every year to seek terminations. “I practice in West Belfast and I would have an idea if so many women were seeking abortions. It is a totally inflated figure.’
Ironically, the current peace process may make it even harder to discuss the abortion issue. Both Catholics and Protestants cling to opposition to abortion as a piece of common ground between them. No politician on either side of the water wants to rock the boat.
In an effort to bring some pressure for change, doctors, legislators and other professionals are coming together at a conference this weekend, organized by the international Planned Parenthood Federation, with the support of the Birth Control Trust. Ann Furedi, the Trust’s deputy director, believes that the time is right for the law to be reconsidered. ‘This is one instance where politicians are wildly out of touch with grass-roots feeling’, she says. ‘When you talk to women, you will find that nearly everyone you speak to knows someone who has travelled to England to end an unwanted pregnancy. From a rational point of view the current law makes no sense. It doesn’t prevent abortions taking place. It just makes them far more traumatic for women.’
The images are, from top down, a cartoon by Peter Till from the original Independent on Sunday article; a cartoon by Steve Bell from the Guardian, 8 May 2014 (© Steve Bell); photo of a demonstration in Belfast for abortion rights from Alt magazine, 21 August 2014.