Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 22 October 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Sarah's tragedy highlights grotesque treatment of women with crisis pregnancies in Northern Ireland

Sarah Ewart
Fionola Meredith

Is this it? Is this the moment when our political leaders are finally forced to face up to the grotesque barbarity with which they treat women with crisis pregnancies in Northern Ireland?

A young woman, Sarah Ewart, discovers that her much-wanted baby suffers from such a terrible foetal abnormality that it cannot survive beyond birth.

At her 20-week scan, she learns that – due to the nature of the condition, anencephaly, which means that a major part of the brain and skull is missing – delivering the baby would be a long, traumatic process, with only one possible outcome.

Sarah decides that, for both her own and the child's sake, she cannot go through with the birth. And who could blame her?

Yet, because of Northern Ireland's archaic and confused abortion laws and the deliberately vague and intimidatory draft 'guidelines' issued to interpret those laws, Sarah is forced to leave her home and family, travel to London and pay for a termination.

To make a dire situation even worse, she is traumatised even before she leaves. After seeking advice on her condition at the FPA offices in Belfast, Sarah and her mother are aggressively harangued by anti-abortion zealots, who follow them with signs and banners, yelling in their faces that they are killing a life. Sarah describes the abuse as "horrendous".

Welcome to life in 21st century Northern Ireland: a woman carrying a dying baby is screamed at and pursued on the street, before making the long, lonely journey to England.

Here she is forced to pay – both emotionally and financially – for the Assembly's gross and culpable abnegation of its duty of care to her.

Meanwhile, complacent politicians sit comfortably up at Stormont, forming all-male, cross-community cabals, where they can ponder the sanctity of life and quietly plot new ways to criminalise those who seek to defy their pious misogyny.

No need for any intervention by Dr Richard Haass on this topic: discrimination against women in crisis is the one thing they can (almost) all agree on. (Publicly, at least – MLAs are a lot more flexible on their views when questioned anonymously.)

Whether actively opposed, or pusillanimously avoidant, this disgraceful conspiracy of silence on abortion is the closest we may ever get to a shared future.

I know: it sounds like an ugly joke. But no-one – least of all the victims of this horrifying state of affairs – is laughing.

It's too late for Sarah, who has had her termination now and must begin the process of grieving for her lost baby, as well as trying to recover from the additional ordeal she has been so unnecessarily put through.

But now a new case has emerged, also through the BBC Nolan Show, of another Northern Ireland woman, who finds herself in the same distressing situation as Sarah.

Laura and her partner, Chris, have just discovered, at her 20-week scan, not only that they are expecting twin girls, but that both of the babies have anencephaly.

The devastated couple want their medical team to help them and provide a termination here, so that they do not have to repeat the costly, painful trip that Sarah and so many, many others have been forced to make.

If that help is not forthcoming – and it won't be unless politicians intervene, such is the fear and confusion sown among health professionals by the consistent failure to provide clear guidance on the law – in less than a week the couple must travel to England for the procedure.

Our political leaders – and Health Minister Edwin Poots, in particular – now have a unique and immediate opportunity to make right a very long-standing wrong.

If they choose to take the only humane, truly moral decision and make provision for Laura and Chris to have the treatment they require carried out here in Northern Ireland, within the law, we know they already have the backing of the vast majority of people.

According to the Life and Times survey, three out of four people said they didn't think it was always wrong to have an abortion if the baby was severely disabled.

So, no more talk of reaching out to those in crisis, no more waffle about a willingness to listen. The time for that has long passed.

Laura and Chris, and others like them, don't need words now. They need action.

Will it be the usual, cowardly denial of responsibility? Or will it be something entirely new – a brave choice in favour of true, Christ-like compassion?

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