Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 21 August 2014

Why Sarah's abortion story is a great shame on Northern Ireland

Sarah Ewart had to travel to London for an abortion after she was told her unborn child had no chance of survival

How I hope the tragic case of Sarah Ewart, forced by the dysfunctional health system in Northern Ireland to travel to England to abort a baby without a developed brain, will result in a step towards an enlightened abortion law in this country.

If anything at all comes of Justice Minister David Ford and Health Minister Edwin Poots' promise to 'consider' whether Ewart's unpalatable ordeal was horrific enough to alter the law, it seems a small step is the best we can hope for.

Regardless of what the people of Northern Ireland want – and we just don't know for sure; every survey claiming a pro-life majority has an opposing twin – Stormont, naturally conservative, cowardly and as forward-thinking as a dying goldfish, doesn't have it in it to make leaps. Not of any kind, but especially not on anything as politically sensitive as abortion. It's a word I still see people mouth in public in Northern Ireland, as if the word itself has such power it's safer to avoid saying it out loud. Like you might avoid a leprechaun after you've been to a cashpoint.

Imagine the moment the excited expectant mum-to-be is told her baby is extremely deformed, has failed to develop a skull, and has no chance of survival. That a civilised country maintains a 65-year-old law requiring that shellshocked, frightened and already grieving young woman to carry the foetus to term, give birth to the 40-week-old brain-dead baby, then watch it die, is beyond 'worth reconsidering'. It is a great shame on Northern Ireland.

This is a case which should send shockwaves among women's rights campaigners in the UK, but will receive less attention than it deserves. The main reason for this is that many British campaigners simply aren't aware of the backwards abortion laws in Northern Ireland. They think of that battle as having been won some decades ago.

When you explain the situation to them – 'No, rape isn't grounds, nor is extreme foetal abnormality. No, really' – they're as incredulous as Radio 4's James Naughtie sounded on this week's Today programme when presented with the details of Ewart's experience.

The current law isn't just cruel, it's also not fit for purpose, even if you approve of its purpose. Suspicion that some evil doctors may be mis-assessing the risk of 'permanent and serious damage to the mother's mental or physical health' in order to carry out abortions means that every medical professional who has had the guts to make such a call is under threat of imprisonment.

But who can confirm the impact to a person's mental health of an event yet to happen? God himself might take a rain-check. Frankly, if there are doctors out there overstating potential risk so they can offer a compassionate escape from fear and depression to young women, I regard them as heroes, not villains. That we have a law which aims to criminalise them is intolerable.

The abortion law has other dangerous side-effects. When I was pregnant my doctor failed to inform me of all the tests I was entitled to on the NHS. When I challenged him, he shrugged. 'You can't get an abortion anyway so what good would knowing your baby had Down's syndrome do?'

It didn't occur to him it might be a good thing to be prepared emotionally and equipped with knowledge before giving birth to that child. He simply didn't regard me as having a right to information or legally approved tests. That was another tale I had to tell my friends in Scotland twice over; they just couldn't believe it.

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