We need a new abortion law, not a ticket to England
Published 29/08/2012 | 08:00
Almost 18 years ago to the day, I was expecting my third child. Because of my age, my hospital consultant told me to have an amniocentesis to scan for abnormalities.
Part of the consent process included a declaration that I would have a termination should any serious abnormality be found.
The logic was that there was no point in having a risky test if I wasn't prepared to act on the results. It wasn't an easy choice, but I signed the form.
I was lucky; the amniocentesis was normal and I went on to have a healthy daughter.
But under new proposals from the health minister, Edwin Poots, to reclassify abortion reporting, my consultant might have been sentenced to hard labour for attempting to procure a miscarriage under the 1861 Offences Against the State Act, which governs abortion law in Northern Ireland.
Mr Poots has said that, in future, doctors here will have to provide explanations for individual abortions to both the health minister and the department of health.
Not only does this directive risk breaching patient confidentiality, it obfuscates a situation where, while all major political parties are opposed to liberalising abortion law, public opinion in Northern Ireland is firmly in favour of it.
This is still the only part of the United Kingdom where women don't have the legal right to have an abortion - the 1967 Abortion Act, which empowered women in England, Wales and Scotland, was never extended to Northern Ireland.
The last time that abortion was debated here - on June 20, 2000 - health minister-in-waiting, Jim Wells, introduced a motion opposing the extension of the Abortion Act 1967 to Northern Ireland. Not one to mince his words, our Jim. "Legal carnage," as he called it.
Back then, the medical ignorance of our legislators was appalling. In the same June 2000 debate, Edwin Poots claimed that "medical evidence has proven that abortion increases the chance of breast cancer by 50%''.
This is a scaremongering argument popularised by the religious Right in America; the theory that there is a causative link between induced abortion and breast cancer has been disproved by many medical authorities, including the World Health Organisation. Does the health minister still believe this rubbish? Most opinion in Northern Ireland is pro-choice.
A 2008 survey, carried out by market researchers, Millward Brown Ulster, showed that nearly two-thirds of Northern Irish people held that abortion should be legal in cases of rape, or incest.
And a 2009 academic study showed that 68% of Northern Ireland gynaecologists believed that abortion should be legal where a woman has been raped, while more than two-thirds agreed that it should be legal on grounds of foetal abnormality. In all, 73% wanted free abortions for Northern Ireland women who travel to England to have the procedure.
This is a problem we export. The Family Planning Association refers 40 women a week from Northern Ireland to British clinics for a private abortion.
These are women of all ages and backgrounds, some homeless, some with family or financial problems. Some have been raped, others simply find it impossible to cope with another child. When travel and accommodation are included, they don't have much change from £2,000.
It is time that our politicians faced up to the reality that the majority of people here support liberalisation - not further restrictions.
In particular, it is time that Edwin Poots and Jim Wells recognise that you can't have maternal health without reproductive health. And reproductive health includes contraception and family planning and access to legal, safe abortion. Jim Wells believes that allowing rape victims access to legal terminations would mean abortion on demand.
That's as logical as Missouri Republican Todd Akin's claim that pregnancy as a result of "legitimate" rape is rare, as "the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down".
If only we could do the same with Mr Wells. My daughter is now 17 and on her first holiday with the girls, in Portugal. I'm hoping the worst thing she will come home with is a tattoo.If she (God forbid) was raped and faced with the prospect of an unplanned and unwelcome pregnancy in Portugal, she would have full and free access to a safe, early termination there.
Back home, under the beady eye of health minister Poots and his party colleague Jim Wells, she wouldn't.