Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 23 October 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Abortion: Reason must trump emotion in debate - we need reasoned assessment of impact before we change the rules

PICTURE POSED BY MODEL. File photo dated 31/01/2007 of a rape victim waiting to be seen by the doctor in the medical room at a specialist rape clinic in Kent. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Wednesday July 9, 2008. Every police force in the country needs to set up a specialist unit to investigate rape allegations, a senior police officer urged today. Acknowledging that the 6% conviction rate for rape was "not good enough", John Yates insisted constabularies needed to put their best experts in charge of rape cases from start to finish. See PA story POLITICS Rape. Photo credit should read: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

Attempts to tighten the abortion law generally start in moral panics and end in tears, recrimination and soul-searching as vulnerable women are refused terminations.

What we need is a reasoned assessment of the impact before we change the rules, not afterwards. In the meantime, medical staff at the sharp end deserve the maximum discretion that existing legislation allows.

Abortion legislation across Ireland is based largely on the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, where "procuring a miscarriage" is punishable by life imprisonment.

Although the Draconian penalty is seldom if ever imposed, it has had enough of a chilling effect on the medical profession to keep abortion levels low.

In practice, most women who can afford it travel to England, where the 1967 Act allows terminations up to 24 weeks of pregnancy on grounds that include risk to the physical or mental health of the woman, or the risk of serious abnormalities.

In the Republic, this uneasy "Irish solution to an Irish problem" was undermined by pro-life campaigners. In 1983 they steered through the eighth amendment to the constitution, guaranteeing "the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother" in all legislation.

The intention was to prevent the courts or legislators extending the grounds on which abortions could be carried out. That happened in England in 1938, when the Bourne judgment vindicated a doctor who granted an abortion to a distressed 14-year-old rape victim.

That kicked a hole in the 1861 legislation and paved the way for the 1967 Act.

In the Republic's 'X' case, another 14-year-old pregnant girl was prevented from travelling to England for an abortion. Last year Savita Halappanavar, a married woman, died of complications after being refused an abortion in Galway.

The latest hard case to emerge involves a woman who says she immigrated to Ireland after being raped in her home country. In Ireland she was discovered to be eight weeks pregnant.

As a recent immigrant, she couldn't afford the €1,500 (£1,197) needed to take the English route, and wasn't free to travel anyway. In the end she was more or less forced to have the baby by Caesarean section.

It is a personal tragedy and a legal mess, which the Irish Government says some future administration can sort out.

Here, Health Minister Edwin Poots tried to clamp down on abortions by regulation rather than legislation. No local doctor in modern times has been convicted of carrying out abortion.

Mr Poots promised more oversight of medical decisions with the threat of prosecution and also warned that referring women to England – or even travelling there for an abortion – was "a grey area".

Within weeks we had the case of two women who were expecting children with little chance of survival after birth and had been refused terminations, though they probably would have been granted them before Mr Poots issued his guidelines. Barra McGrory, the DPP, stepped in to say that they would not be prosecuted for travelling to England.

The law is now in a mess and next month David Ford, the Justice Minister, promises a new consultation, which Mr Poots isn't participating in.

Rather than taking emotional runs at this issue, we need a reasoned debate. While that unfolds, the medical profession needs reassurance that no medic has ever been convicted of carrying out an abortion to preserve a woman's mental or physical health.

We should trust medical judgment while the legal discussion continues and avoid intimidating the professional with scare tactics.

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