Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 30 September 2014

The women who silenced us all over abortion

Sarah Ewart

In Northern Ireland, we kind of revel in an image of being idealogues. We like our world black and white with no troubling shades of grey, please. Which is why last week's Stephen Nolan TV show proved compelling, showing the human drama that undermines the set-piece rhetoric of the certain.

Few could forget the account given by Jane Christie, mother of Sarah Ewart, who had been carrying a child so disabled it was unlikely to survive birth.

Taking the nightmarish choice of not carrying on with the pregnancy, Sarah's trauma was compounded by having to go to England. It wasn't easy to be a stranger in a strange city surrounded by voices not of home.

However, here the story took an unexpected, complicating turn. Mrs Christie spoke of Sarah's shock and discomfort at the attitudes of other women at the clinic: "Laughing and carrying on", the majority were there "for just one reason, to get rid of a baby and I absolutely hated that," said Jane. In other words, this was abortion as lifestyle choice.

Her response to that situation – and Sarah's own account of the barracking she took from pro-life campaigners outside a family planning clinic – made the usual grandstanding common to the abortion debate difficult on Nolan, and all to the good.

Their story pointed out one thing very clearly. In Northern Ireland, we're torn by the issue in a fashion unique to ourselves. The shouters on both sides have the comfort of certitude.

The religious extremes, which (for all the language of compassion) seem to dismiss the consequences of rape, incest and danger to the mother as "collateral damage", are mirrored by the certainty of the vehement pro-choice lobby, which believes – in the face of obvious counter-examples – that the human foetus has no rights at all and that the desire to, say, continue a career is reasonable grounds for a termination.

Many religious Protestants find themselves lobbying against this legislative parity with GB, allied with Catholics. Republicans and nationalists, on this issue, find themselves decrying the values of Holy Ireland and lauding 'British' values in a manner which would have horrified the heroes of the '50s campaign and old stalwarts like Eddie McAteer.

Where does that leave the middle ground? Especially as there doesn't seem to be one.

It's a truism that we're not the country of 50 – or even 20 – years ago. Fewer are engaged with the churches; divorce is a fact of life – private sadness, but not public scandal. Children are routinely raised outside marriage and outside traditional structures.

We live a more individualised, less communal form of life. Our world is more a product of TV, mobiles and the internet than of the street, pub, lodge, chapel or corner shop.

That doesn't mean we've lost all trace of our traditional stances. We are not England.

Unlimited abortion doesn't sit easily with us, Protestant or Catholic. Though the inclusion discomfited some, the community as a whole was quick to grieve for the twins in the womb murdered in the Omagh bombing. They weren't considered somehow different or possessing fewer rights than adults. We certainly didn't feel their rights to life depended on their mother.

Regardless of how we might negotiate our consciences on the admissibility of abortion in set circumstances, it's patently true that many feel uneasy at the prospect of 'social' abortion. Hence the welcome complexity Mrs Christie and Sarah's observations introduced into what could have been the bear-pit of Nolan.

Absolutists may rail at our inner division and sneer at obvious inconsistencies. But that doesn't render those views stupid or negligible. Which leads to our difficulties. We know there are times when abortion is understandable and should be supported by the state. But it's not something to be taken lightly – and many here feel the current situation in England isn't morally tenable.

Our politicians and opinion-formers should reflect this reality instead of appealing to a de Valerian Ireland, or considering England as the final word in Enlightenment.

Abortion is a complex, emotive issue. We shouldn't fear breaking with a past viewed through rose-tinted spectacles, or being out of step with the 'modern world'. We shouldn't be bullied or find laws enacted which we don't find reflect our views. We should not fear, say, a referendum.

We are what we are. But Mrs Christie spoke for the majority here.

A bit of common-sense leadership from our, er, leaders, wouldn't go amiss, in this as much else.

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Follow me on Twitter: @GWalker9

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