Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 December 2014

Stormont's pregnant pause on abortion law is shameful

Body-blow: women in crisis pregnancies are being abandoned by our politicians
Body-blow: women in crisis pregnancies are being abandoned by our politicians

Here's a question for the women of Northern Ireland. Who is in charge of your body? Who controls what happens to it, who determines its destiny? Is it you, the person that inhabits it? Or is it Paul Givan of the DUP?

The SDLP, with Alban Maginness leading the charge, would also like to decide what you can and cannot do with your own body. As would the united forces of the Catholic Church, the Church of Ireland and the Presbyterian Church.

And now even Mickey Harte, the Tyrone GAA manager (of all people), has weighed in with his support for the pious plan: an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill to stop private clinics carrying out terminations in Northern Ireland.

Oh, yes. And Dana is right behind it, too. All kinds of everything, indeed – unless you're a pregnant rape victim, needing an abortion.

Since when did a football manager become the moral conscience of a nation? There is no doubt that Mickey Harte has suffered appalling loss in his personal life.

But there is no reason why we should give his opinions on abortion any more consideration than the next person's.

What has the ability to organise a bunch of beefy men into a team that can throw and kick a ball got to do with the complex ethics of reproductive rights?

Harte would be better occupied pondering the wisdom of giving a character reference for a man who admitted sexually assaulting a woman and throwing her half-naked from a van than seeking to limit still further the pathetically few options that a woman with a crisis pregnancy has in Northern Ireland.

Let's just be very clear about one thing. Paul Givan and Alban Maginness may say that the proposed amendment – which would restrict abortion services, allowing them to be carried out only on NHS premises and even then only in exceptional circumstances – is about ensuring accountability and transparency and supporting the NHS.

It is not. It is about seeking to control women and their bodies. It is as basic and as reprehensible as that.

The paternalistic line we have been fed – and do I detect the hand of our hardline anti-abortion attorney general John Larkin at work here? – is that there is no need for a facility like Marie Stopes, since the NHS already provides for abortions in the limited circumstances that the law allows. This is highly disingenuous. Just as in the Republic, the abortion law in Northern Ireland is in a mess and a state of wilful legal limbo prevails. Maybe this week, the Department of Health will finally get around to publishing the draft guidelines on abortion. Maybe not.

We've only been waiting a decade, or more.

Not surprisingly, doctors and midwives are reluctant to test the boundaries, fearful of finding themselves at the potential risk of going to jail.

So there is no clear route for women wanting to access NHS terminations. The Marie Stopes clinic, while it can only offer medical abortions (up to nine weeks) to the few women who qualify under the existing law, at least provides a clear, non-judgmental pathway for those seeking help.

Even if this amendment succeeds – and Sinn Fein needs to deliver on its much-trumpeted commitment to equality and gender rights here – abortions will still happen.

But instead of a humane, non-surgical, early intervention, which destroys a cluster of cells, desperate women will be driven, as usual, to travel across the water and pay to get a termination which, because it takes time to scrape together the money and make travel plans, is more likely to result in a surgical abortion, which destroys something that looks a lot more like a baby.

These costly, unnecessarily delayed terminations should be on the conscience of every one of our so-called 'pro-life' politicians (and also on the ones who are secretly pro-choice, but don't have the guts to say so).

Their sanctimonious antics actually add up to more women having later abortions. And if they're not sure what a foetus at that stage looks like, they should ask their great friend Bernie Smyth, of Precious Life, who advises the pro-life cross-party group, to show them one of her special pictures. I'm sure she'd be happy to oblige.

There is only one word for Stormont's appalling, inhumane dereliction of duty to women with crisis pregnancies.

It's a strong word, but it's the right one. And that word is abomination.

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