The man set to become Northern Ireland’s next Health Minister has sparked a furious row after claiming rape victims should not be allowed to abort an unborn child.
DUP MLA Jim Wells said women who suffer a sexual assault must not be exempt from the strict laws banning abortion here — and should instead consider handing their baby over for adoption.
The controversial remarks have sparked an angry backlash from victims’ charities and pro-life campaigners.
Alliance MLA Anna Lo claimed Mr Wells was “still living in the dark ages”.
“Women have a choice over their own body and for men like Jim Wells to say that is wrong,” she said.
The South Down MLA, who will take over as Health Minister next year, made the comments in a radio interview on Thursday.
He said the current law — where abortion is only permitted to save a mother’s life or prevent long-term physical and mental health damage — should remain, even in cases where she was the victim of rape.
Aborting an unborn child was, he said, merely “punishing” the “ultimate victim” of the crime.
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, Mr Wells said he stood by his comments, and claimed any change in the law may “open the floodgates” and lead to “abortion on demand”.
Figures released this week revealed 43 “viable pregnancies” were terminated last year in Northern Ireland.
In an attempt to reduce that number, GPs will have to provide a detailed explanation to the Health Minister and department for each abortion they sanction.
Speaking on The Nolan Show, Mr Wells said the DUP had concerns about the basis for some abortions.
He said the current law must be upheld, even in cases of rape.
“That is a tragic and difficult situation but should the ultimate victim of that terrible act — which is the unborn child — should he or she also be punished for what has happened by having their life terminated? No,” he said.
“In Northern Ireland there are hundreds of married couples who would love to adopt children, a child, a baby, and who could give support in that situation.
“A termination of a pregnancy should not be the first option in that situation. The other option is that you kill the child who’s a totally innocent victim in this terrible set of circumstances.”
Mr Wells remained defiant, insisting any change to the law could lead to “abortion on demand”.
“These instances are extremely rare in Northern Ireland and my concern is those who are lobbying on this issue are using it to some extent because they want abortion on demand for everyone, regardless of the circumstances,” he said.
“The stats are very low for pregnancies which arise as a result of rape, so therefore I am very worried about moves to create any change in the legislation which would open the floodgates to full-scale abortion on demand as we have in England, where we’ve had seven million children destroyed as a result.”
Goretti Horgan from Alliance For Choice, which campaigns for women to have legal abortions, said she was angered by Mr Wells’ remarks.
“It should be up to the woman to decide for herself what she wants when faced with a crisis pregnancy,” she told the Belfast Telegraph.
“A lot of people — whether pro-choice or anti-choice — will say that a woman pregnant because of rape should not be forced to continue that pregnancy.
“Should a woman really be forced into nine months of effective punishment for what someone else did to her?
“Many women who become pregnant through rape say the pregnancy is a constant reminder of the attack. It is there every single day, they just can’t get away from it.”
Anna Lo, who is pro-choice, urged Mr Wells to reconsider his stance.
“I find it incredible. I just think — are we still living in the dark ages where men can dictate to women on all issues?” she said.
Yesterday the DUP appeared to reject his claims by issuing a statement saying it recognised that rape victims “may be included” in abortions carried out in Northern Ireland.
“We would like to see as few abortions carried out as possible but recognise that a small number of abortions are legally carried out in Northern Ireland and victims of rape may be included within this,” it said.
Mr Wells’ comments come just days after a Republican candidate in the US caused a furore when he claimed that women’s bodies had ways to prevent pregnancy in case of “legitimate rape”.
Missouri candidate Todd Akin later admitted he was “medically wrong” in suggesting that pregnancy generally could not happen as a result of rape.
He is under pressure to quit the race for a Senate seat.
Jim Wells has been MLA for South Down since 1998, having also represented the constituency from 1982 to 1986.
The 55-year-old DUP man caused controversy last year after texting the organiser of the Belfast Pride parade who had invited him to the event. Mr Wells said he found those taking part to be “repugnant” and did not want to be associated with them.
Mr Wells is currently deputy chair of the Assembly’s health committee. He is due to replace Edwin Poots as Health Minister next year.
Risky strategy that could be damaging
By Liam Clarke
Tony Blair had a deep Christian faith but still allowed Alastair Campbell to pull him back from discussing it — with the words “we don’t do God.”
That would be a good principle for our local politicians to adopt. Being guided by principle, and showing your principles by the way you lead your life, is difficult but it tends to command respect. It is called integrity.
Preaching to others and demanding that they should live by your principles is comparatively easy but it is not an attractive quality. It can appear priggish, overbearing, even hypocritical, especially in a political leader who uses elected position to impose personal convictions on others.
Male politicians telling women whether and when to become pregnant and ordering them not to have abortions if they are raped are taking a risk with their credibility.
The DUP is now the largest political party in the province and has recently boosted its support base by projecting a more modern, progressive image. When he returns from holidays, Peter Robinson should rein in his more zealous colleagues who could end up limiting the party’s appeal to the faithful few.
An offence still punishable here by life imprisonment
Northern Ireland is the only part of the United Kingdom where abortion is still illegal.
Carrying out a termination is only allowed to save a mother’s life or prevent long-term physical and mental damage to her health.
All other cases, including when the woman has been the victim of rape, are banned.
Effectively, the law here is as it was in Britain before 1967, when the Abortion Act was introduced.
It allowed abortions where the unborn child was aged up to 24 weeks and, after that, if there is an extreme foetal abnormality or the mother is likely to suffer severe physical or mental injury.
When the Act went through Westminster, Northern Ireland had its own parliament and the issue of abortion was left for it to decide — it did not take up the issue. When Direct Rule returned, Westminster never extended the Abortion Act to Northern Ireland.
Sections 58 and 59 of the Offences against the Person Act 1861 and sections 25 and 26 of the Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1945 govern the law on abortion here.
An offence under section 58 is punishable with life imprisonment.
According to statistics released in an Assembly question, 123 legal abortions took place in Northern Ireland over a three-year period.
The figures for “termination of pregnancy”, which do not include cases where there had been a miscarriage, showed that there were 44 abortions in 2008/09, 36 in 2009/10 and 43 in 2010/11.
Abortion is legal in England, Scotland and Wales, and there is nothing in law in any of the UK’s jurisdictions to stop women from Northern Ireland travelling to the mainland to have a termination.
In 2009, the number of abortions carried out in England and Wales was 189,100.
Some 2,085 were the result of doctors deciding that there is a substantial risk that if the child were born it would suffer from severe physical or mental abnormalities and be seriously handicapped.
The majority were certified under the statutory ground of risk of injury to the mental or physical health of the pregnant woman.
Abortion in the Republic of Ireland is illegal unless doctors judge that a woman's life is endangered by the continuation of her pregnancy.