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Durkan says sorry... but apology fails to quell row over crass 'elephant in the womb' abortion joke

By Donna Deeney

Published 11/03/2016

Mark H Durkan was widely criticised after his remark was reported in yesterday’s Belfast Telegraph
Mark H Durkan was widely criticised after his remark was reported in yesterday’s Belfast Telegraph
The Belfast Telegraph's story on the issue

The backlash to a Stormont minister's insensitive joke about abortion has grown.

Environment Minister Mark H Durkan yesterday apologised unreservedly for telling an audience at a women's event he "would address the elephant in the room - or should that be the elephant in the womb".

The pro-life Foyle MLA was on a panel in Londonderry that had been asked to address the sensitive issue of abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality.

An audience of up to 80 women were present, as well as a group of girls from a local secondary school.

Campaigners on both sides of the debate said the issue of abortion was too serious for flippant comments such as those made by Mr Durkan.

The Environment Minister yesterday admitted his comments at the launch of a political manifesto on women's rights were "wrong and insensitive".

"I absolutely accept the comment I made was wrong and insensitive and I apologise for any offence I caused," he said.

"I was speaking at the launch of the Women's Manifesto, an important document which raises a number of extremely important issues like domestic violence and gender pay equality.

"It is unfortunate that these issues and the launch have been overshadowed by my comments. I take responsibility for that too and apologise once again."

But Goretti Horgan, a spokeswoman for the Alliance for Choice, which campaigns for the liberalisation of Northern Ireland's abortion laws, said she found it difficult to understand how anyone could be flippant about such a serious issue.

She added: "Even the most pro-choice activist who might find herself with an unwanted pregnancy will not make the decision to have an abortion easily. It is a difficult subject and no one should minimise the seriousness of the subject.

"I don't know if Mark H Durkan made his remarks out of nervousness ahead of having to talk about abortion when he is pro-life and a member of the Assembly pro-life group, but we really should not have politicians in the Assembly pushing the issue under the table on one hand and on the other hand making crass comments."

DUP MLA Paula Bradley said Mr Durkan was right to apologise. "There is no debate over whether Mark's comments were inappropriate," she said. "They were obviously ill-judged and caused offence in relation to a very sensitive subject.

"Whilst offensive, the comments were clearly off the cuff, and I am glad that Mark has moved quickly to apologise unreservedly. On this subject, and in general political debate, it reminds us all, that regardless of the position taken, we should strive to be sensitive in the language that we use."

Catherine Cooke from Foyle Women's Information Network, which organised the event at which the joke was made, described the comments as "unfortunate and inappropriate."

She said: "While I welcome Mr Durkan's apology, it was an unfortunate and inappropriate thing to say.

"He was asked, like the other politicians who were at the event, to give a short speech on the content of the Women's Manifesto, and he made his remark at the beginning of his speech, so there was no opportunity to address what he said then, but there was an audible gasp from the audience.

"There was a question and answer session after all the speeches, but no one brought his comments up at that.

"I hope that people are now interested enough in the manifesto to pick it up and use it as a tool to challenge all politicians on the doorstep in the run-up to the election."

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