Belfast Telegraph

It’s time to cut out hysteria in debate on abortion here

By Fionola Meredith

Can we talk about abortion? Really talk? Too often, the only voices we hear on this issue are the strident, hyper-moralistic ones of the anti-abortion lobby.

You know who I mean — the zealots who think it's fair game to brandish ghastly images of aborted foetuses under the noses of women of childbearing age. Or who think it's acceptable to hang similarly foul pictures from roadside trees so that everyone can see them, including young children walking home from school.

Who cares if a random schoolchild is traumatised, as long as it stops someone from murdering the little baby inside them, right? Because in the narrow minds of the anti-abortionists, the ends justify the means.

Nothing else matters — the physical or mental health of a woman with a crisis pregnancy, the uncertain future of an unwanted child — as long as that baby is born.

These are the people who say they are holding “prayer vigils”, not protests, and who vehemently deny the frequent charges of harassment made against them. Yet they pursue women as they walk down the street, expanding on their monomaniacal agenda, or shout at them if they refuse to take their gruesome leaflets.

Last time I looked, prayer involved conversing respectfully with the Almighty, not haranguing passers-by and attempting to foist what is effectively pornographic material on them.

For far too long, these people have been allowed to hijack the abortion issue. They have succeeded in shifting the entire discourse about reproductive rights on to moral grounds. Their own very specific either/or, black or white, baby-killer or baby-lover brand of morality, that is.

Discussion of any other kind — such as the moral argument for women's control over their own bodies — is shouted down.

In this they are aided and abetted by the vast majority of our pious politicians, who complacently keep telling us that there is no demand for abortion in Northern Ireland. Yet all the while thousands of desperate women are forced to make the sad, lonely and expensive journey over to England to have a termination, many in the later stages of pregnancy because of delays caused by financial hardship.

Others, perhaps unable to afford the trip, end up turning to risky abortion pills bought on the internet. A survey of GPs in Northern Ireland found that 11% have seen the results of amateur abortions.

The Assembly's glib abdication of responsibility for these women is disgraceful: it allows politicians to take the holier-than-thou high ground, while conveniently continuing to export the problem. They have let the women of this country down badly, and those secret, costly late abortions should be on their consciences.

You'll notice that I have not named the organisation that mounts these protests, sorry “prayer vigils”. That's a deliberate decision. We have already heard more than enough from them, and they represent only one, disproportionately vocal, section of people who are opposed to abortion.

So what about having a genuine public conversation about this? The one where we all speak calmly and rationally, and don't attempt to guilt or shame anyone else into changing their point of view? I'll start.

Let me begin by saying that I hate the idea of abortion. And yet I am pro-choice. I believe that a humane society should make provision for terminations in certain circumstances, where the mother's physical or mental health is under threat.

I accept the fact that others take a different view. When you leave the shrieking pro-lifers out of it, it's clear that this is not a polarised issue, but a complex one with many shades of opinion.

For instance, I know — and respect — people who are opposed to abortion on principle, but who would never dream of attempting to foist their views on others. It's simply a choice they know they would not make themselves.

I know other women who are pro-choice, but believe that the current UK time limit of 24 weeks for terminations should be lowered, given that the survival rate for premature infants has improved since 1990, the last time the law was changed. These are rich areas for discussion, if only we could bring ourselves to be brave and have that big, honest conversation.

Of course, we do discuss it in private. But few of us feel comfortable speaking out openly, in public.

That needs to change. Otherwise hypocrisy and hysteria will continue to be the twin watchwords when it comes to the topic of abortion in Northern Ireland.

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