Belfast Telegraph

Friday 18 April 2014

Stormont needs to deliver on shifting attitudes to abortion

Tragic: the death of Savita Halappanavar has focused attention on anti-choice health minister Edwin Poots
Tragic: the death of Savita Halappanavar has focused attention on anti-choice health minister Edwin Poots

The Republic isn't as pro-life as pro-lifers pretend, and neither is the north.

The Irish Times/Ipsos poll published on Monday suggests that 71% of people in the south back plans to bring the law into line with a 1992 Supreme Court ruling that a woman has a constitutional right to an abortion if continuing the pregnancy would put her life in danger – including danger of suicide.

This represents a considerable shift since 1997, when a poll in the same newspaper showed only 23% favouring legislation along these lines.

Figures are harder to come by in the north. But the evidence suggests that here, too, pro-lifers' claiming to speak for 'the people' are wide of the mark.

In the 1997 survey in the south, 18% said that abortion should not be allowed in any circumstances. This figure has gone down to 12%.

The 1997 poll showed 14% in favour of abortion when a woman's health was endangered; this has shot up to 70%.

Support for abortion because of danger to a woman's life stood at 35% in 1997, compared to 84% now.

The poll revealed large majorities for abortion when the foetus is incapable of life outside the womb (79%), or in cases of rape, or incest (78%).

Perhaps the most startling statistic to emerge was of 37% support for a woman's right to choose, whatever the circumstances: 40% of women, 34% of men.

The findings show that a majority in the Republic would support far more liberal legislation than the government proposes to introduce.

The reasons for this sea-change include the decline in the reputation and influence of the Catholic Church; the increasing numbers of women entering the workforce and coming to see their place in society in a different perspective; and wide-ranging public debate underway since the pro-life amendment campaign of 1982.

The change has more recently been reinforced by women coming forward to speak to newspapers and on television about the reasons they opted to end pregnancies.

The case of Savita Halappanavar, who died in hospital in Galway after being refused a termination, focused attention even more sharply on the question of when abortion should be available.

The factors affecting attitudes in the north are more difficult to identify – although the declining power of religion and changes in the role of women have clearly been significant.

However, debate on abortion has never gone mainstream here in the way that it has in the south.

The unanimity of the Executive parties in opposing extension of the 1967 Abortion Act has helped push discussion to the margins.

The confessional/sectarian nature of the structures at Stormont has made anti-choice health ministers, such as Edwin Poots, invulnerable in their refusal to issue guidelines to bring medical practice into line with court rulings.

The requirement for cross-community voting on designated issues gives pro-life activists an effective veto over any advance.

The connection between the stability of Stormont and the denial of abortion rights to women here was encapsulated in Mo Mowlem's 1998 remark, counselling a Labour MP to desist from proposing the extension of the 1967 Act: "We must not stir up the tribal elders."

In spite of all this, thinking has changed here, too. We may lack rigorous poll results, but there is an accumulation of evidence that Stormont is lagging as far behind the people as the Dail did for decades.

A survey of gynaecologists in the north in 1994 showed that 59% believed abortion should be legal in cases of rape and 70% in cases of foetal abnormality.

In 2009, a majority of gynaecologists said that, generally speaking, they would back liberalisation of the law; only 32% wanted things to stay as they are.

Seventy per cent of GPs surveyed said, in 2009, that they would prefer decisions on whether to terminate a pregnancy to be taken by the woman concerned in consultation with her doctor.

Asked in the 2008 Northern Ireland Life and Times survey whether they thought it wrong for a woman to have an abortion when there was a serious risk of deformity, only 25% of respondents said 'Always wrong'.

The figures are not neat, or conclusive. But they are strongly indicative that opinion here is not seriously out of kilter with the south.

What's missing is a mainstream party, or an organised group of MLAs declaring itself pro-choice, taking the evidence and pushing the issue forward. The cross-party position developed at Westminster is that there should be no move to 'impose' the 1967 Act without 'broad support from a cross-section of people from Northern Ireland'.

Perhaps the time has come to put this proposition to the test. Anyone for a referendum?

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