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Cruel abortion law is most pressing issue of our times

By Fionola Meredith

Published 30/10/2015

If we are enlightened enough to begin inching our way in the direction of marriage reform, why are we not similarly motivated to demand the overhaul of the most draconian anti-abortion laws in Europe?
If we are enlightened enough to begin inching our way in the direction of marriage reform, why are we not similarly motivated to demand the overhaul of the most draconian anti-abortion laws in Europe?

Mike Nesbitt is correct when he says that those who oppose gay marriage will find themselves on the wrong side of history.

The momentum of the marriage equality train is unstoppable even in our own rather backward corner of Western Europe.

If the politicians yet again fail to enact it legislatively next month at Stormont - what's this now, the fifth time of asking? - then the courts will step in at some point and do the needful.

Either way, gay marriage is coming.

And that will be a good thing, something to be accepted and even celebrated, not feared or despised.

Giving gay people the right to get hitched to each other is no threat to the traditional institution of marriage.

Heterosexual couples will be as authentically married as they ever were - yes, even on the day that the gay wedding bells ring-a-ding out across the Ulster heartlands.

In fact, you could argue - as many people have - that the State endorsement of gay marriage actually reinforces and re-energises a moribund practice that has lost most of its inherited social power and meaning.

Matrimony is a take-it-or-leave-it kind of option now, a convenient excuse for adult women to live out their princess fantasies for a day and waste oodles of cash on fripperies like colour co-ordinated sugared almonds, rather than a required undertaking for all respectable heterosexual couples, as it used to be.

If you profess to be a fan of marriage then you should be welcoming this development with open arms.

And it's clear that more and more people are, even in equality-shy Northern Ireland.

We are not talking anarchy and apocalypse - quite the opposite, in fact. The sky will not fall in. In essence, gay marriage is an act of social conformity, the seeking and receiving of official State approval.

It's about recognition, not revolution, and it's certainly nothing that anyone needs to get their knickers in a twist about.

My only problem is this. In the collective move towards marriage equality a far more fundamental and damaging injustice is being overlooked. If we are enlightened enough to begin inching our way in the direction of marriage reform, why are we not similarly motivated to demand the overhaul of the most draconian anti-abortion laws in Europe?

To my mind forcing a girl or woman to carry a child that she does not want - even in the case of rape, incest or fatal foetal impairment - under the threat of life imprisonment should she try to seek an unlawful abortion, is a situation of monstrous State barbarity. It requires urgent attention and revision.

Amnesty International has reported that our restrictive abortion laws are in significant breach of the UK's international human rights obligations.

Medical professionals live in fear of potential prosecution because of ominous-sounding 'guidelines', and it is women who pay the price: mentally, physically, economically.

Thousands of them, making that solitary trek to England where they have to pay for treatment they should get for free.

So why don't we get this inhumane, degrading mess cleaned up before we start thinking about anything else?

Of course, supporting abortion rights is far less instinctively appealing than cheering on marriage equality.

Gay marriage is all about extending the love - at least in the popular rhetoric which helped swing the 'yes' campaign in the South - which sounds awfully cuddly and open-minded and compassionate, and that's how most people like to see themselves. There's even a term for it: virtue-signalling.

Backing gay marriage makes me a nice person, or so the implicit logic goes. Backing a woman's right to terminate doesn't have that same sweet ring to it.

Another reason that abortion rights fail to generate the same level of enthusiasm is that the victims of this outlandishly archaic legislation are almost always invisible.

There are no scenes of public flag-waving and joyous kissing to promote the cause, because it's not that kind of cause. They seem like ghosts, lists of shadowy numbers, yet behind each statistic is a real flesh and blood person who has suffered.

The truth is that the vast majority of people living here - seven out of 10, according to the latest poll - support changes to our heartless abortion law.

Standing up for the right to choose may not give you that lovely feelgood factor, as the marriage equality campaign does.

But it's the most urgent human rights issue in Northern Ireland today.

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