We the people can't rely on MLAs for an abortion law
Published 30/11/2012 | 08:00
The debate about abortion in the Republic, sparked by the case of Savita Halappanavar, who died in a hospital in Galway after being repeatedly refused a termination, has become strident and fractious. But at least they are having a debate.
In contrast, the announcement by Stormont Health Minister Edwin Poots that he is considering a new law to make the operation of the Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast illegal has been greeted in near-silence - including by MLAs who, just a few weeks ago, were welcoming the establishment of the clinic.
Responding on Monday to a question from Jim Allister, Poots told the Assembly that: "It may be that we [will] only permit abortions to be carried out in a health service facility." This would prevent the private Marie Stopes facility offering legal terminations.
Coming just seven weeks after the clinic opened its doors, Poots's move indicates a startling alacrity, in contrast to the lethargy with which he and his predecessors have dealt with matters pertaining to abortion in the past.
There is no mystery about the legal position on abortion in the north: the question was considered and resolved by the courts in the 1990s, not once, but on three occasions.
In the 'K' case in 1993, the High Court ruled that a pregnant 14-year-old, who was threatening to abort herself, or commit suicide, was entitled to a termination.
The following year, the court, after hearing psychological evidence, ruled that 'A', a severely mentally disabled woman, had a legal right to an abortion.
And, in 1995, the court declared that a 16-year-old with mental health problems, who was in the care of the state, was legally entitled to a termination.
In none of these cases was the woman, or girl, able to avail of the service in this jurisdiction which the court had explicitly declared was her legal entitlement. Each had to travel to England.
Nothing was done to remedy this situation until 2001, at which point nothing was done again.
In June that year, the Family Planning Association went back to court seeking clarification of the rights of women seeking terminations.
The Department of Health undertook to issue guidelines. Six years passed. Guidelines were then produced and rejected by the Assembly.
Redrafted guidelines were issued in 2008. A 'final' version of these was published by the Executive in March 2009. Then another year went by.
Then, in May 2010, the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child challenged this 'final' version in the High Court.
So the department went back to the drawing board and, in July 2010, produced a rewritten version of the previous year's 'final' version. A period of consultation was announced, to end in October 2010.
Eleven months after this closing date, Jim Allister asked Poots when we could expect to have sight of the result of the consultation. On September 16, 2011, Poots answered: "As yet, no date has been set." And there the matter rests. Which is more than can be said for the women affected.
Throughout these years of fiddle and fudge, the legal position has remained exactly as was set out in 'K' almost 20 years ago. During that period, an average of five women a day have trudged to England for abortions.
The silence following Poots's threat to Marie Stopes suggests that this situation will persist for as long as the issue is left in the hands of our political leaders. Only pressure from below has any prospect of making them move.
Most of the blame for avoidance of the issue lies with MLAs and parties which, when it suits them, readily volunteer their pro-choice credentials. The pro-lifers tend to be not just up-front, but in your face - often literally.
The classic pro-life position is that a human entity with the same moral status as a child, or adult, comes into being when a soul enters the body at the point of conception.
Thus, pro-lifers cannot concede that abortion is permissible in any circumstances. So they define abortions which they cannot plausibly oppose as not being abortions at all - 'double effect'.
Once the law defines when abortion is allowable, the policy argument no longer focuses on whether abortion is permissible, but on the circumstances in which it should be permitted. If they give an inch, pro-lifers, in their own terms, will have lost all.
They will fight like tigers. Although, faced as they are by pussy-cats, they may think they won't have to.
Women in the north - and men who support women's right to choose - will have to take on this struggle themselves.