Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 28 December 2014

Why religious belief can't be allowed to drive abortion law

Jim Wells' assertion that rape victims be denied abortions only highlights the DUP’s unchanging zealotry.

Distressed and vulnerable: rape victims face enough trauma without being denied right to an abortion by DUP's Jim Wells
Distressed and vulnerable: rape victims face enough trauma without being denied right to an abortion by DUP's Jim Wells

God help the women of Northern Ireland. Our political leaders have ensured that they have no control over their own bodies, their own reproductive choices.

Opposition to abortion is so deeply enshrined that even in the case of rape, where a woman is forced to have sex against her will, some politicians — such as DUP health minister in waiting, Jim Wells — still deny women the right to choose a termination.

With breathtaking smugness and complacency, he said that a rape victim should continue the pregnancy to term and then hand over the infant to one of the “hundreds of married couples in Northern Ireland who would love to adopt children.” He is equally uncompromising in the case of extreme foetal abnormality, where the humane decision may well be to end the pregnancy.

Actually, this is more than complacent: it is chillingly heartless.

Wells may speak hysterically about “killing the child”, but has he no empathy to spare for a raped mother? Where is his Christian compassion there? Has he ever imagined what it would be like for his own body to be invaded and violated in this appalling way?

To then be forced to literally carry the consequences, racked with anguish and confusion, reliving the horror every day, for nine months — and then have to face giving up the baby to strangers?

Jim Wells makes it sound so neat and simple, like recycling an unwanted gift. He is entirely ignorant of the terrible reality, and his moral posturing is a disgrace.

Unfortunately, he is not alone. The DUP may have effectively rejected his claims by saying it recognised that rape victims “may be included” in the highly restricted number of abortions that are carried out in Northern Ireland. (How incredibly magnanimous of you, gentlemen.)

Yet the Wells debacle has shown us, once again, the true, unchanging theocratic nature of the DUP.

Peter Robinson has sought to represent the party as a pragmatic, progressive, modern political force that has moved beyond the hoary, Bible-bashing days of ‘save Ulster from sodomy'. But you know what they say about leopards and spots.

This is not an isolated incident of unscripted moralising by an off-message politician. Playing God with people's lives is what the DUP was born to do, and it's not about to stop any time soon.

Take the DUP's plans to reinforce the already draconian abortion laws here, with tougher procedures which will require GPs to provide detailed explanations for each termination carried out.

If doctors know they are going to face some Salem witch-trial grilling where they have to justify their own clinical decisions, they will be far less likely to allow abortions, even when they are necessary and legally permitted. One barrister said that if the new system goes ahead, “you are going to have a minister wanting an explanation in every case.”

He said that in some cases of foetal abnormality, the mother would not be told the extent of the damage, but the minister would be.

Now that is a truly frightening scenario: imagine Mr Wells, installed as the new health minister, sitting up at Stormont, interrogating your doctor, and making an individual decision about what happens to your own body.

A choice that is entirely personal to you and your life will be instead handed over to a fundamentalist religious zealot, with lifelong consequences. The bitter irony is that the answer is predetermined. Mr Wells has already made his views perfectly clear: no abortion in any circumstances.

But we shouldn't be surprised.

It was the same in 2010 when the then culture minister Nelson McCausland asked the Ulster Museum to include Young Earth creationist accounts of the world's origins in its exhibitions.

It was the same when the chair of the Stormont education committee, the DUP's Mervyn Storey, called for the teaching of creationism in school science classes, insisting that “creationism is not for the RE class because I believe that it can stand scientific scrutiny.” And it was the same when the current health minister, Edwin Poots, banned blood donations from gay men, struggling to find some kind of half-baked medical rationale for this act of naked prejudice.

These DUP men start with a highly conservative moral agenda and then try to twist the facts to fit, often using the language of equality as a blunt weapon to achieve their aims. This is what happens when personal religious convictions drive political action, and it kills true democracy. Ministers should aspire to neutral independence, not abuse power for their own sin-haunted ends. They have yet to learn this primary lesson of devolution.

When it comes to abortion, one thing is for sure: Northern Ireland's politicians (with the rare exception such as the Alliance party's Anna Lo) are morally culpable, either directly or by default.

The other parties may not share the DUP's outright zealotry, but it's not sufficient to speak vaguely about “compassion and support”, as the SDLP does, or sidestep the issue as a “matter of conscience”, UUP-style.

Our political leaders are letting distressed, vulnerable women down, and the consequences of these misguided decisions should weigh heavily on all their consciences.

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