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People power vital to change abortion law, says writer of Father Ted

By Liam Clarke

Published 19/10/2015

Graham Linehan and his wife Helen
Graham Linehan and his wife Helen

Graham Linehan, the screenwriter behind Father Ted, and his wife Helen have called for a popular movement to change the abortion laws in Northern Ireland and the Republic.

Helen disclosed that she herself had an abortion for fatal foetal abnormality in England.

Mr Linehan also urged medics to stretch the rules and perform abortions on both sides of the border where it seemed appropriate.

He was convinced of that, after reading John Irving's novel Cider House Rules, which tells the story of a doctor carrying out illegal abortions in America.

"At the end, he realises that when terminations are illegal he has a moral duty to perform them because he knows that the lives of the women who come to him will be endangered if he refuses. That is the situation in Ireland now," said Mr Linehan.

"While it is illegal, you have to fight for it. That is the only moral choice."

The couple will be in Belfast today to launch an Amnesty International campaign for a change in the law, and will talk about the abortion that Helen had in 2003 just after they got married. The baby had a congenital disorder where the skull does not develop from eye level to the back of the neck.

Latest studies warn it is "uniformly fatal" and carries a "100% mortality rate".

There have been reports that one child, Aliyah Wilson, survived birth. However, in a documentary the surgeon who treated her described it as another rare condition called acalvaria.

A Dubliner, Mr Linehan believes a popular movement is needed to change the law, like the referendum campaign for same sex marriage. It would need a referendum in the Republic, as Article 8 of the Irish Constitution protects the life of the unborn.

Here we have similar abortion legislation, which was enacted before partition, but it could be changed by a vote at Stormont. There are proposals to make abortion for fatal foetal abnormality legal but they are meeting opposition from pro-life groups.

"The problem on both sides of the border is that politicians consider this issue toxic," said Mr Linehan.

"The way to do it is to get the people to make their feelings clear. Politicians just have to be stepped around, because they have already had plenty of opportunities to sort this out."

His iconic TV show, Father Ted, ran from 1995 to 1998 on Channel 4. It has had almost as many reruns as Fawlty Towers but he wouldn't write such a light-hearted show about Catholic clergy nowadays. He views the topic as ruined for comedy by clerical abuse scandals, the Magdalen laundries, secret adoptions and the burial of foundlings in mass graves.

"It would be very difficult to write Father Ted now," he said. "My sense of humour withered with respect to the Catholic church once we saw things like the mass graves of orphaned children or the case of Savita Halappanavar [who died after being denied an abortion in Galway]. Nowadays it would have been a bit difficult to be silly and whacky as we were."

He is now developing a new show for Channel 4. "It is about some guys on a space station floating around the earth.

"It is more like Commander Hadfield than Deep Space Nine and is set about 20 years in the future. It is just a silly little thing," he said.

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