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Abortion is the only humane thing to do in certain cases and most people agree

Father Ted writer and his wife on how their ordeal led them to back changes in the law

By Victoria O'Hara

Published 20/02/2016

Graham Linehan and his wife Helen say their activism over abortion is a result of their own traumatic experience
Graham Linehan and his wife Helen say their activism over abortion is a result of their own traumatic experience

Graham Linehan, the screenwriter behind Father Ted, and his wife Helen have vowed to campaign to change the abortion law in Northern Ireland.

In 2003, the couple of 14 years themselves experienced the heartbreaking experience of an abortion after their unborn baby was diagnosed with a fatal foetal abnormality (FFA).

But speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, they said despite the recent political setback they strongly believe there is the "will among the people" for change.

After the emotive issue made headlines as MLAs voted against a change in the law to permit abortion in the case of FFA, Graham, a Bafta-winning comedy writer originally from Dublin, said: "It was one of those times when we were just stunned."

The proposal to allow abortion in such cases was defeated in the Assembly by 59 votes to 40 with the DUP and SDLP voting against any change. Graham said: "How can you look at people going through this situation and say yes, they are criminals, criminals for wanting to terminate a pregnancy that is going to be fatal?"

The couple said they felt "huge disappointment" with the SDLP for not supporting the motion.

Helen said: "I think the SDLP pride themselves on being a civil rights group and they voted against it. It made me so angry - I was shaking."

Last year, in support of an Amnesty International campaign for a change in the law, Helen disclosed that she herself had an abortion for FFA in England. The baby had a condition called acrania, which means the skull fails to form properly over the brain, meaning her child wouldn't survive for longer than a few hours outside the womb. Helen chose to have a termination in England.

"It was a terrible time but I was treated with such compassion," she said.

Unlike other parts of the UK, the 1967 Abortion Act does not extend to Northern Ireland, where abortions are banned except where the life or mental health of the mother is in danger. Anyone who performs an illegal termination could be jailed for life.

And it was their discovery of a similar situation in the Republic - that had they been living in the Republic of Ireland during her pregnancy, Helen would have been forced to carry the pregnancy to term, or face a 14-year prison sentence for procuring an illegal abortion - which encouraged them to speak out.

Christian campaigners said the existing rules provide vital protection for women and welcomed the outcome of the debate. However, the situation has proved controversial. The proposed law change has been the subject of a legal battle and landmark ruling. Sarah Ewart, who had a termination in England after learning her baby had no chance of survival and went public about her ordeal, was branded a murderer and inundated with abusive messages and graphic pictures of dead babies via social media.

Graham, the writer behind successful comedy series such as Father Ted, Black Books and The IT Crowd, said although receiving some upsetting messages via Twitter, his wife is a strong woman.

"I'm upset more for Helen but she is very strong. She recognises these people for what they are."

Graham said he doesn't know how long change in the law would take but believes strongly there is a will there. "I genuinely think people in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland cannot look at a story like mine and Helen or Sarah Ewart and feel nothing but concern and empathy."

However, he added: "For the politicians after a while it is going to become very obvious that when you don't do anything your sympathy is worth nothing. Eventually I'm hoping that these people will be shamed into doing the right thing."

He described it as "frightening" the thought that people would only change their mind on the matter if they are faced with the situation. "People only changing their mind if they experience it? That is a terrifying thought because I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy," he said.

Belfast Telegraph

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