Opponents of abortion do not have a monopoly on morality and ethics
Every person should have the right to make choices based on their own compass, writes Fionola Meredith
I'm not surprised that Dr Caroline Gannon, one of only two paediatric pathologists in Northern Ireland, has resigned. When you have to advise a couple to bring their dead baby home in a cooler box, following an abortion in England, it's easy to see how that could make your job seem impossible.
I empathise with Dr Gannon and the family involved. There is something obscene and inhumane about being forced to transport the remains of a much-wanted baby in an ice-packed picnic bag, because of the barbarity of our current laws, which refuse support to people in this hellish situation. When will we, like Dr Gannon, say enough is enough?
As the BBC reported, the couple had been told that their baby had a fatal foetal abnormality. Since it is illegal in Northern Ireland for an abortion to be carried out on these grounds, they had to go to England for the termination. Understandably, they wanted a post-mortem examination to find out more about the diagnosis. But it is difficult to arrange post-mortems in these circumstances in England, so they had to bring the baby back in the boot of their car, on the overnight ferry. Other couples, finding themselves in the same horrible bind, have had to use parcel carriers to ship the remains.
Dr Gannon said that recent developments in abortion law in Northern Ireland made her position untenable.
As it appears that the majority of political opinion here is opposed to abortion, there seems little prospect of legislative change.
Moreover, the Attorney General has made several well-documented interventions in Northern Ireland abortion law. In November 2012, he offered to assist the Justice Committee at Stormont in an investigation into the Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast. In November 2015, he appealed a High Court judgement which ruled that Northern Ireland's almost total ban on abortion was in breach of human rights law. And in February 2016, he questioned whether a proposal to allow abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities - one of several amendments to the Justice Bill - was compatible with international human rights law.
What struck me most about Dr Gannon's words was that she said her own code of ethics was being compromised by the legal constraints on her job.
She told the BBC: "I just cannot work in this particular system. I find it very difficult and I cannot reconcile the legal system I am having to operate under with my own personal ethical beliefs."
This is also important in a wider sense, because ethics, or morality, is too often seen as the sole preserve of anti-abortion campaigners, who use faith and doctrine as the foundation for their arguments against reproductive choice.
But these people do not have the monopoly on morality. They do not own ethics; they are not the only ones with principles.
Our personal moral code - essentially, our conscience, which helps us decide for ourselves what is right and what is wrong - is an entirely individual thing. And Dr Gannon found that it went against her conscience to deny distressed couples the information, support and choice she believed they were entitled to, which is why she resigned.
In her powerful new book, The Moral Case for Abortion, Ann Furedi argues that abortion is not a necessary evil, something to feel guilty about, or be ashamed of, or to apologise for. Or indeed to be criminalised for. Furedi is the chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, which is the UK's leading abortion care charity. She insists that abortion can be a morally good choice: a rational, responsible decision which affirms a woman's status as a thinking, acting, autonomous human being.
Furedi wants those of us who are in favour of a woman's right to choose to put pragmatic arguments to one side and make a determined assault on the high moral ground, which for too long has been entirely occupied by the anti-abortion lobby.
She says - and I agree with her - that abortion should be a private matter for a woman's conscience.
To deny a woman that choice is a denial of her moral agency, her freedom to choose the path she wants her life to take.
It is ironic that opponents of abortion wish to portray Northern Ireland, with its brutal, antiquated laws, as a place of moral purity, while England - operating under the 1967 Abortion Act - is considered morally degenerate.
But what is so morally pure about denying a woman the termination that she needs?
What is so deeply principled about forcing a grieving couple to bring their dead baby home in a picnic bag?