Belfast Telegraph

Stormont must return to look at abortion law, says SDLP man whose son survived at 25 weeks

Councillor Michael Savage with his wife Noreen and children Caolan, Tara and Ella
Councillor Michael Savage with his wife Noreen and children Caolan, Tara and Ella
Caolan in an incubator when he was a newborn
Councillor Michael Savage with his son Caolan

By David O'Dornan

A politician whose "miracle" son defied the odds to survive after being born at 25-and-a-half weeks has spoken out over the decriminalisation of abortion here.

Newry SDLP councillor Michael Savage called for a return to Stormont to try and address the matter and said his pro-life views have been influenced by his son Caolan, who was given a 20 per cent chance of survival 21 years ago.

Mr Savage said: "From my own perspective I've been shaped greatly by my own experience. He truly is a walking miracle. He had a hole in the heart, he had a perforated bowel, he was born with chronic lung disease.

"A lot of premature babies would have poor eyesight but he has perfect vision, doesn't need glasses, and is graduating from John Moores University in Liverpool in the third week in November.

"He had only a 20 per cent chance of survival. I must say, the nurses in the neonatal unit in the Royal and the nursing staff at the special care baby unit in Daisy Hill Hospital, I don't view them as nurses, I view them as guardian angels.

"Because of the way and the manner in which they viewed life as being so precious and holding on to it and fought every inch of the way for my son and the other children in those wards.

"Not all of them made it, some of them were left with life-changing conditions, and this is where I believe part of the challenge going forward is, we need to improve perinatal care as well in Northern Ireland, that we have more positive choice for parents and this is about trying to legislate going forward and implement services and bring about services that lead to choices beyond terminate or not terminate."

Caolan weighed just 1lb 14oz when he was born in April 1998 at less than 26 weeks - the change in law here will see abortion allowed up to 28 weeks.

Mr Savage continued: "I know there are women out there who have had harrowing experiences and that has shaped their views in this argument, but I believe I'm entitled to express my views in the argument and I'm not one of these people who rams his views down people's throats.

"I believe that my experience is testimony that even with a 20 per cent chance of survival, my son was given the opportunity to fulfil his life and has taken it with both hands.

"We would just consider ourselves to be exceptionally lucky and couldn't think of life without him. It puts you very close to understanding the whole concept of the miracle of life. What it really does is to reinforce to you the things that matter in life - family and your children are probably the most important things to most people out there.

"I want to speak up for those parents who are struggling at the moment with a young premature baby and that child's hanging on for life and I want to tell them that there can be a happy ending here."

Unionist parties triggered the Assembly's recall with a petition last Monday, in a last ditch attempt to stop abortion law changes. The bid failed however as politicians were told business could not proceed until a Speaker was elected with cross-community support, and this became impossible when the SDLP left the Stormont chamber.

Mr Savage, who also has two daughters, Tara (18) and Ella (12), with wife Noreen, is calling for a return to Stormont to try and address abortion laws.

Last May the SDLP held a special conference and voted to give its members a free vote on all abortion-related issues, meaning they can now vote with their conscience.

Mr Savage said: "I seconded a motion by a former councillor in Newry here and good friend and mentor of mine, John McArdle, which was reaffirming our party's position as a pro-life party. That was overwhelmingly endorsed on that day.

"And I firmly believe that that is the very essence of what the SDLP rank and file is about.

"But from my own perspective, I believe that there is a need to allow those within our party who are legislating to have a freedom of conscience in relation to the very difficult cases.

"And that comes up on the back of some of the good work that was worked on by our party and others prior to the collapse of the Executive around the time that (former Alliance leader) David Ford was talking to parties and talking to legal and medical practitioners.

"And the deepest frustration I have today would be that that work was not allowed to continue and instead we've ended up with something resembling the 1967 Act landing on our doorstep here in Northern Ireland with the most far-reaching abortion regime anywhere in Europe.

"I don't think the people of Northern Ireland asked for that. I don't think they voted for it. I don't think they want it, I don't think they are ready for it.

"And I think Monday was a very sad day in relation to local democracy here. I believe that there was an opportunity potentially missed by our own party.

"I can understand the rationale by what they were trying to do and having spoken to some of the members of our party I do understand what they were trying to do was to show the thousands of people who had expressed concern that we weren't ready for this legislation and didn't want it.

"And from whatever side of their argument it came across that we were listening. Now maybe the choreography and everything else around it didn't go the way that it should have done, but what I wanted to do really was to speak up on behalf of the very significant number of people within our party - elected representatives, volunteers, party members past and present and supporters of the party who would be pro-life in their views but also accepting of the need to be compassionate for women in very harrowing circumstances.

"Monday showed that parties in the middle like ourselves, who want to do what's right, and who want to step forward and listen to people, not just those who are fundamentally pro-life, but also those who believe that there is a need to change this legislation, even in a moderate way."

He added: "There will be some people out there from a pro-life perspective may be angry at our party in some shape or form, but I am here to reassure them that our party is a pro-life party but some of us believe there is a need to legislate to deal with the difficult cases and show compassion."

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