Belfast Telegraph

Monday 22 September 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Abortion debate: This is clearly a health issue, not something for criminal legislation

Sarah Ewart tells BBC Northern Ireland's The Nolan Show she had to travel to London for an abortion after she was told her unborn child had virtually no chance of survival.
Goretti Horgan is a lecturer in social policy at the University of Ulster

Most people in Northern Ireland are on Sarah's side when it comes to the right of women in her dreadful predicament to have their abortions here in their local hospitals.

We know this because three out of four people told the NI Life and Times Survey that they did not think "it is always wrong to have an abortion" if the baby would have "a severe disability".

There can be little doubt that where the foetus has a fatal abnormality such as in Sarah's case, no one would want to see a woman forced onto a plane, having to find almost £1,500 in a huge rush to pay for an abortion that should be free on the health service.

I believe that Sarah had a legal right to have her abortion here. The law excludes abortion for reasons of foetal abnormality. But it says that a woman whose mental or physical health is at serious risk of long term injury has a right to a legal abortion here. Who can doubt after hearing Sarah's heartbreaking story that continuing the pregnancy – knowing that she would have to go through a particularly hard labour to give birth to a baby that could not live outside the womb – would have had a serious impact on her mental health for the rest of her life?

So, why did her doctors not give her an abortion in her local hospital? Just 10 years ago, they would have provided the abortion. But the ongoing lack of clarity in relation to when abortion is legal here, combined with the chilling effect of the highly restrictive draft guidelines that were published by the Health Minister earlier this year, means that doctors are now afraid to provide any abortions except when a woman's life is clearly in danger. How many people here agree, as the guidelines insist, that a doctor who provided Sarah with an abortion should face life imprisonment?

How many people think that a desperate woman who goes onto the internet to get abortion pills should face life imprisonment? How many think a doctor or midwife, to whom a woman who's taken pills turns, should face 10 years in prison if they don't report the woman's 'crime'? I think almost no-one. Yet the guidelines on abortion published by Minister Poots reminds us again and again that that is the law.

I believe it is time to take abortion out of the criminal law and have it as the health issue it so clearly is. It's time our Assembly grew up and had a reasonable debate about abortion. We need a debate about the reality of abortion in Northern Ireland – one that includes the tens of thousands that have travelled to England and paid for health care available on the NHS in England, Scotland and Wales and the hundreds who every year get pills over the internet to cause their own abortions.

But while we wait for that debate, we need to clarify the law to make it clear that women like Sarah should be able to end their pregnancies here, in their local hospitals, surrounded by the love and support of their family.

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