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Mother tells of devastation at DUP's 'U-turn' over abortion

By Victoria O'Hara

Published 02/05/2015

Sarah Ewart had to travel to England for an abortion
Sarah Ewart had to travel to England for an abortion
Elisha McGill

A woman who faced carrying her baby that had no chance of survival after birth has spoken of her devastation at DUP leader Peter Robinson's comments describing proposals to change the abortion law in Northern Ireland as "doomed".

Sarah Ewart said she feels let down by the First Minister, adding that male politicians need to stop "taking control over women's problems".

Speaking last night Mrs Ewart said that although politicians were sympathetic to women diagnosed with fatal foetal abnormalities, none were sympathetic enough to "put their neck out" and change the law.

She spoke out after Mr Robinson stated that proposed draft guidelines for abortion offered a better way forward than legislation. Mrs Ewart claimed the DUP had previously offered support to change the law.

Justice Minister David Ford said Mr Robinson had done a "U-turn" on his position of having a free vote on the matter in the Assembly.

Mr Robinson has defended his stance on abortion as "completely consistent".

Mrs Ewart, who had to travel to England in 2013 for a termination after being told her baby had a fatal foetal abnormality, said she and her family had been led to believe they were going to get support on the issue from a number of people in the DUP.

Former DUP health minister Edwin Poots said he had met Sarah Ewart and her mother a number of times. He said he did not recall saying that he would support a change in the law regarding fatal foetal abnormality.

"I did agree to look at the guidelines again and believe that the matter is better dealt with there than through legislation", Mr Poots said.

Abortion is only permitted in Northern Ireland to save a woman's life, or if there is a risk of permanent and serious damage to her mental or physical health.

Mr Robinson made his comments in response to the Justice Minister's recommendation to change the abortion law on fatal foetal abnormality cases.

It had previously been understood that the DUP would give its members a free vote on the issue.

Anti-abortion campaigners have welcomed the DUP leader's comments.

Public consultation was launched in 2014 on the issue of making limited changes to Northern Ireland's abortion law in cases of fatal abnormality.

It was completed last month and Mr Ford said the proposals had seen substantial support.

Peter Lynas, NI Director of the Evangelical Alliance, said: "There were over 25,000 responses to the consultation and more than 99% were against any change in the law. 3,425 people signed a petition opposing any change.

"A further 20,197 people filled out a postcard opposing change.

"These 23,622 ordinary people seem to have been ignored in concluding there was a substantial body of support for change."

A DUP spokesman said last night that the party now concludes that the Justice Minister's Bill "does not have sufficient support to become law (even with a free vote)".

"It is clear from the positions of the various parties and their members that the Ford proposals do not have the support needed to pass the Assembly.

"Before reaching the Assembly any Bill must have the support of the Executive," the DUP spokesman said.

Grainne Teggart, Amnesty International's Northern Ireland campaigner, said Mr Robinson's comments were "disingenuous".

"Peter Robinson knows full well that any new guidance from the Department of Health on the existing law cannot address a glaring gap in that law," she said.

"He and his colleagues must join with other Executive parties to deliver meaningful change in the law. To do otherwise would be a cruel betrayal of women like Sarah Ewart ."

Sarah's story: ‘Men won’t deal with this. It’s a toxic issue’

Sarah Ewart had to decide whether to travel to Britain for a legal termination in 2013 after she was given the tragic news that her unborn child had virtually no chance of survival.

She spoke publicly about her heartbreak at being forced to go to London after her baby was diagnosed with anencephaly, a severe brain anomaly which means the skull does not develop properly.

Because it did not pose a direct threat to her life, Sarah and her husband were told she could not undergo a termination in Northern Ireland.

They were told that the termination could not be performed here and that she would have to continue with the pregnancy until the baby either died in the womb or at birth.

She and her mother Julie Christie have lobbied politicians for a change in the abortion laws to allow terminations to be carried out legally here in the case of severe abnormalities. They now feel let down by the comments by the First Minister.

Mrs Ewart said: “I have so many women coming to me privately saying they have had the same experience but can’t go public. And they said keep going, that they understand and they can’t continue with their families until this is resolved.

“Unfortunately it’s men and they are not realising it and they need to stop taking control over women’s problems.

“They all say that they are sympathetic which is fair enough.

“It is good of them to share that with us, but they  won’t push themselves enough.

“They are not sympathetic enough to actually put their neck out.

“Nobody wants to deal with this. This is toxic. They avoid us.”

Her mother Jane said the DUP was now “back-pedalling”.

“Sarah and I are devastated,” she said.

“We met the First Minister on a number of occasions and certainly the impression that we were given behind closed doors is not what he is coming forward with now and it is extremely disappointing.”

Mrs Christie criticised the politicians, adding that offering sympathy is not enough.

“Sympathetic doesn’t cut it,” she said.

Elisha's story: ‘Law needs to change for certain situations’

Elisha McGill is pregnant with her third child — a baby she has called Annie — but was told the devastating news on December 1 the baby has the rare, fatal condition anencephaly.

After receiving the diagnosis, both Elisha and her husband Dermot (36) from Aghadowey near Coleraine made the decision to continue with the pregnancy.

But the couple believe that the abortion law does need to be altered to address certain situations and parents should be given a choice in what is a “horrible situation”. “I can only make these comments as a mother affected by a fatal abnormality,” she said.

“We’ve said from the very start of this journey that the law does need to change for certain situations. Although we have chosen to continue we strongly feel that parents should be given the choice here in Northern Ireland without having to add extra stress, pressure and social stigma to an already horrible situation. 

“However, it is important that these decisions should be given time to be made and parents should have all the information possible in regards to the positive and negative that comes with both paths.”

Elisha, a facilities manager with Sodexo, who is due to give birth within days, said it was vital that couples were made aware of the specialist support available to them after receiving such devastating news.   

“It’s also important that support networks are highlighted and available for everyone,” she said. “I think it’s important to remember that if a change in law does happen not everyone will choose to end their pregnancy.”

Elisha and Dermot, a fabricator/welder, are also parents of two boys Ollie (2) and Bobby (1). They are now preparing for the birth of their only daughter — and to lose her in a short period of time.

When they made the decision to carry on with the pregnancy, both Elisha and Dermot also decided to donate her vital organs after their daughter is born. Elisha said: “We have been preparing ourselves from December 1. Time is a great healer and to have that time to prepare yourself is important. It will be emotional, but we hope it gives hope to other families.”

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