Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 30 October 2014

Old fogies on the hill need to think about women's rights

Life-or-death issue: pro-life demonstrators outside Belfast’s Marie Stopes clinic
Life-or-death issue: pro-life demonstrators outside Belfast’s Marie Stopes clinic

Has there ever been a speech in the Assembly more patronising to women than Jonathan Bell's contribution to the debate on the Marie Stopes clinic?

The Strangford MLA observed that, "I do not think that we want our women to be placed in any dangerous situation. I do not think that we ever want our women to be served by an unregulated situation."

North Belfast MLA Alban Maginness ran Jonathan close, hitting out at "private clinics making financial gain from vulnerable women and their unborn children," "the most vulnerable in our society: woman in crisis pregnancy and their unborn children," "misfortunate women in crisis pregnancies," and so forth.

Others anxious about "vulnerable", or "misfortunate", women included Pat Ramsey, Tom Elliott, Edwin Poots – and Paul Givan, who topped the lot with four declarations of concern for "vulnerable" women. Vulnerable, vulnerable, vulnerable, vulnerable...

It obviously didn't occur to any of them that most of those choosing abortion might be strong women with a clear sense of their right to be guided by their own conscience in a matter affecting their most intimate selves, rather than bowing down to the conscience of mainly male legislators.

Not one of the speeches condemning Marie Stopes mentioned the possibility that there might be such women among us.

The debate was on an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill, submitted by Mr Givan, Mr Maginness and Mr Elliott. The amendment was 276 words long. Not one of these words was 'woman'.

The transcript of the debate runs to more than 43,000 words. But the phrase which defines one side of the abortion debate – 'a woman's right to choose' – occurred but once, when Anna Lo said: "I cannot stand by and listen to some of the comments made and not defend a woman's right to choose and to decide what is right for her in her circumstances."

While he didn't use the exact phrase, Steven Agnew of the Green Party strongly implied that this was his position, too. But every nationalist and unionist who spoke was at pains to spell out that she or he didn't take a pro-choice position.

The sheer rudeness of a number of the Stormont men towards Ms Lo would have shocked the unprepared. That – 'Ms Lo' – is how she styles herself. But, even after she had intervened to correct one member miscalling her "Mrs Lo", Jim Wells was having none of this new-fangled woman-speak. It was "Mrs Lo" for Jim and that was her put in her place. Ms Lo's own speech was relatively brief, filling only two pages and four lines of the 85-page transcript. It might have fitted into a single sheet had the Speaker not had to intervene to appeal for order on seven occasions.

At another stage, Ms Lo rose to explain that she was not pro-abortion, but pro-choice. "I want to say that I am not pro-abortion." Mr Givan, seemingly anxious to correct any assumption that the woman might be capable of conveying her own opinion, instantly shot back: "Yes, you are."

It would be wrong to leave an impression of Ms Lo as a timid soul wilting before the aggression of rowdies. On the evidence of the debate, had there been anything timid about her, she wouldn't have lasted at Stormont this long. Any reader with a spare afternoon might usefully read over the whole transcript.

The exercise will correct any assumption that the days are entirely gone when members of the Women's Coalition were routinely greeted with guffaws and animal noises any time they stood to speak.

The fact that Ms Lo is well-able to see off the rowdies doesn't mean make political rowdyism of this sort any the more palatable.

There was only passing reference made in the debate – again by Ms Lo and Mr Agnew only – to the most salient aspect of abortion in Northern Ireland: that around 30 women a week travel across the water for terminations and that hundreds of others terminate pregnancies here every year by using abortion pills easily obtainable via the internet.

Not one of the pro-lifers made any proposal for dealing with this phenomenon. Without exception, they prefer to shut their eyes against the truth, hunker down in ideological boltholes and hope that the facts will disappear.

Steven Agnew suggested that the only sure way of telling where majority opinion on abortion in the north really lies would be through a referendum.

He's up for it. Anna Lo's up for it. Alliance for Choice is up for it.

But what about Paul Givan, Alban Maginness, Tom Elliott and Jim Wells? Any takers? Thought not.

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