Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 26 October 2014

Joint front needed on abortion

Abortion is an issue which causes great emotion in Northern Ireland, but the politicians should rise above that and debate the matter on the scientific, legal and moral evidence
Abortion is an issue which causes great emotion in Northern Ireland, but the politicians should rise above that and debate the matter on the scientific, legal and moral evidence

Seldom can the old adage 'hard cases make bad law' been proved more strikingly correct than in the Republic's new legislation on when a woman can have a legal termination. It was supposed to allow a termination if the woman was deemed suicidal by a panel of experts, but in its first test it has done what seemed virtually impossible, united pro-life and pro-choice campaigners. Both have denounced the new law.

The law was introduced in the Republic after the death of Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old mother who had asked for a termination in 2012 after being told she was having a miscarriage. She was refused and days later died from an infection. It was a case that caused outrage and led to efforts to clarify the law.

Both the Republic and Northern Ireland have very restrictive abortion laws, which result in hundreds of woman leaving both jurisdictions annually to have terminations in England. Northern Ireland is now in the process of starting a debate on clarifying when a woman can legally have a termination. At the moment it is only allowed if the woman's life is in danger.

The Republic's experience would suggest that it is imperative that the medical and legal professions in particular work collectively in responding to any consultation on proposed new legislation. That would mean the Justice Department and the Department of Health collaborating, but this has been ruled out by Health Minister Edwin Poots.

This is a missed opportunity. Not only would a joint approach by the two departments – putting forward one set of proposals for consultation – streamline the situation, but it would coalesce the issue in the public mind rather than confronting people with two consultation papers which may not contain any joined-up thinking.

Abortion is an issue which causes great emotion in Northern Ireland, but the politicians should rise above that and debate the matter on the scientific, legal and moral evidence. Women and the medical profession demand greater clarity and deserve to be given it.

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