Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland's abortion laws are out of step

By Dr Audrey Simpson

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission's (NIHRC) decision to challenge abortion law is very welcome, and comes at a time when public opinion is clearly showing an appetite for change.

Amnesty International's poll of 1,000 people from across the country in October found seven out of 10 support abortion in certain circumstances, with pregnancies as a result of rape and incest the most compelling.

And it is not just the public who support this - last month a snapshot survey of delegates at the SDLP's conference found a majority (54%) would support a relaxation of our abortion laws.

This, on top of our own research in a confidential poll of MLAs, shows a shift in attitude at the Assembly.

The Department of Justice has suggested that the NIHRC legal challenge is an unnecessary step as a public consultation on abortion is already being carried out.

However, the consultation focuses only on the issue of fatal fetal abnormality and is "seeking public opinion" on pregnancies as a result of rape and incest.

We expect public opinion to come back strongly in favour of a change in law on these, as happened in the Amnesty poll, but we all know it would take years for any change to be effected.

It has been 10 years since the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety was ordered by the High Court to issue guidance on the provision of abortion services in Northern Ireland, and this has still not been published.

Every day, women facing unplanned or crisis pregnancies, including those finding out that their baby has severe abnormalities, are subjected to unacceptable burdens - emotionally, physically and financially.

Abortion law here is out of step with internationally accepted human rights principles, it is out of step with public opinion, and it is increasingly out of step with the views of our MLAs.

How much longer must we wait until we can join the majority of the rest of Europe in confining such inhumane and inequitable treatment of women to the history books?

  • Dr Audrey Simpson OBE is sexual health charity FPA's director of Northern Ireland

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