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Abortion must be central in voters' minds at Assembly election in Northern Ireland

You don't have to like the idea of termination to be in favour of law reform, says Fionola Meredith

The Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC) has launched a campaign to urge people to vote only for anti-abortion candidates in the forthcoming election. The NHS, education, the economy - they're all important. But there are even more important issues at stake on polling day, SPUC says. Matters of life and death.

In one sense, SPUC is quite right. There are indeed matters of life and death in question here, and it would be appalling if abortion - an issue of paramount significance to society - was once again pushed aside by other concerns.

As the law stands presently, a woman has to be effectively on the verge of dying before she will be permitted to have a termination. When it comes to abortion, we have some of the harshest, most inhumane legislation in Europe.

"Abortion in Northern Ireland is a criminal offence which is punishable by a maximum sentence of life imprisonment". Those are the words of our Attorney General, John Larkin.

And the situation is getting worse. The recent sharp increase in prosecutions for abortion has deterred doctors from recommending the procedure, even where our unfeasibly strict, Victorian-era laws - which only allow terminations where a woman's life is in danger, or there is a permanent or serious risk to her mental health - might allow it.

Over the last year, three women have been taken to court, and one received a three-month suspended prison sentence. Only 16 terminations were performed in Northern Ireland during 2015/2016. This is not a coincidence.

I understand that the idea of abortion is not pleasant. People can feel very uncomfortable talking about it, and I've come across many who fear that if the law is reformed, it will open the way towards abortion being treated as just another form of contraception. So their impulse is to turn away, as one might from any challenging question, and pretend that the need for change doesn't exist.

But in their heart of hearts, most people realise that we cannot continue treating women - especially women who are victims of sex crime, or who find themselves carrying a foetus which cannot live outside the womb - in this atrocious way. Criminalising them if they can't raise the money to go to England and end up taking desperate measures with pills.

People get it. They know it is wrong to punish women for the failures of the State, which should be providing free, safe, legal care for them.

That's why an Amnesty International poll, in October of last year, found that nearly three-quarters of people in Northern Ireland agree that abortion should be available in cases of rape and incest, or fatal foetal abnormality.

And yet our politicians prevaricate. There's always some bigger crisis, some more pressing concern, some new form of inter-tribal warfare to indulge in.

Only the Greens and People Before Profit stand up for full reproductive rights for women. The DUP remain implacably - depressingly - opposed to any change in abortion law. Sinn Fein appears to support the legalisation of abortion in the cases of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormality. It claims to be fighting this election on the issues of equality and human rights, but while I've seen many lovely rainbow-coloured posters calling for the introduction of gay marriage, I haven't seen any supporting abortion reform.

The Ulster Unionists and Alliance duck the issue by leaving the matter to the individual consciences of their representatives.

The SDLP's position is particularly frustrating: it wishes to style itself as the voice of progressive nationalism, yet maintains a trenchant anti-abortion stance, opposing any change in the current law. But what is so progressive about denying rape victims a termination? How do SDLP politicians dare to show their faces in the International Women's Day march, celebrating gains in women's rights, when they take this antediluvian view?

So by all means, make abortion a vital door-step question for politicians seeking your vote. Whatever your beliefs, it's far better to talk about them openly then to keep them hidden away. We need to start having far more conversations about these pressing issues of life and death.

But in the privacy of the ballot box, I believe it's important to vote for a candidate who wants reform of our abortion laws. That doesn't mean you have to like the idea of abortion. Who does? It simply means that you support a woman's right, when confronted by impossible circumstances, to choose what happens to her own body.

Is that so very much to ask?

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