Health Minister Edwin Poots has been branded “completely out of touch” after a Belfast Telegraph poll showed almost half of those in Northern Ireland want a liberalisation of abortion laws.
More than one in four people in Northern Ireland support a woman’s right to choose on abortion, according to the poll published on Wednesday.
A total of 45% of people surveyed were either for legalising abortion or making it available for victims of rape or incest.
The poll shows a wide divergence of opinion on the issue between the views of many of our elected officials and those on the street.
Mr Poots has come under increasing pressure to issue guidelines on abortion for medical professionals, which have been in the works since 2004.
Last night he said he intended to “take time to explore fully all the issues involved and to ensure that any document produced for health professionals is compatible with the requirements of the law”.
Asked whether he would take on board the information from the poll and re-examine laws here given the stark results, he said there were “no plans to change the law to make it easier to access abortion in Northern Ireland”.
Social policy lecturer at the University of Ulster, Goretti Horgan, said Mr Poots was “completely out of touch” on the issue of abortion.
“I do think there are a lot of reasons why he is out of touch and one is the Belfast Telegraph’s poll,” she said.
“That, along with other polls that have shown in relation to abortion regarding rape or foetal abnormalities, a large proportion — more than half — are in support,” she added.
She said that if a referendum was called on the issue of legalising abortion “we would have a good chance of winning”.
“The only way, really, is if we have a referendum — if the politicians had the courage of their convictions.”
The case of Savita Halappanavar, who died in a Galway hospital after doctors refused to carry out an abortion, has pushed the debate firmly back to the top of the agenda across Ireland.
Speaking from a conference in South Africa, the acting chief executive of the Family Planning Association called on the Health Minister to “come out and tell us when we will see the guidelines”.
Audrey Simpson said that among delegates from 140 countries “Northern Ireland still has some of the most restrictive laws in place”.
“We had a video-link from President Obama. He said: ‘If you value family life, don’t play politics with women’s health’,” she said.
“Our politicians need to look at what’s happening in other countries.
“They can’t any longer argue that people in Northern Ireland don’t want to see change, because we do,” she added.
Further inflaming the arguments for abortion, Mr Poots said he was considering measures which could see Northern Ireland's first private abortion clinic put out of business.
He told the Assembly he was looking at the possibility of only allowing legal pregnancy terminations on NHS facilities.
Alliance MLA Anna Lo said the Belfast Telegraph survey “clearly shows that the Assembly does not accurately reflect the differing views of the public”.
“All of the other major parties apart from Alliance are opposed to a change in the status quo, indeed, I believe that some would oppose abortion in all cases,” she said.
“The death in Galway last month of pregnant woman Savita Halappanavar — despite her requests for a termination and her showing signs of miscarrying — also raised the issue of abortions when the mother’s life is at risk.”
Abortion is only legal in Northern Ireland in exceptional circumstances and is covered under the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, and sections 25 and 26 of the Criminal Justice Act.
A small number are carried out in cases where there is a risk to physical or mental health of the mother.