Belfast Telegraph

'The abortion debate in Northern Ireland needs more than slogans'

Sarah Ewart
Sarah Ewart

By John McCallister

"Keep it simple." It's advice that spin doctors and media consultants routinely give to politicians. And, to be fair, it's very often the case that politicians are looking out for simple answers, easily communicated in 30 seconds in the television studio

The real challenge for politicians, media and pressure groups comes when we are confronted with issues which don't give themselves to simple answers, easily communicated. This has happened in Northern Ireland over the past week.

We have been debating our abortion law, in light of the tragic circumstances faced by Sarah Ewart during her pregnancy.

What do the circumstances faced by Sarah mean for any broader debate in Northern Ireland? There are simple answers available. Some pro-life groups will say that abortion is always wrong, no matter what the circumstances.

Some pro-choice advocates will say that abortion is merely another medical procedure, with no more ethical dilemmas than routine surgery.

Each of these answers could be easily communicated in 30 seconds in a TV studio. But neither answer deals with the complexities raised by the abortion debate. Is it really right to say to Sarah and women facing similar tragic circumstances that they have no choice but to go to term - or be forced to experience the trauma of termination away from their families?

On the other hand, is it right not to reflect on the fact that there are nearly 200,000 abortions - nearly 1 out of 5 pregnancies - in England and Wales each year?

Some of the complexities have been illustrated by Liberal Democrat Lord Steel - author of the 1967 Abortion Act - recently declaring that abortion on the grounds of gender (aborting a pregnancy because the child is a girl) is "wholly repugnant".

Sound-bites and two-word slogans do not answer the hard questions of the abortion debate. They don't do justice to the respect we as a society owe to women facing heart-rending circumstances or choices that male politicians do not have to confront.

Nor do they do justice to those liberal values which call us to respect the weakest and most vulnerable in our society. Politicians, media, pressure groups - we all have to change how we engage in this debate. Simple, easy answers don't address the emotional and ethical dilemmas of abortion.

We need a discourse and a debate that's more honest about the dilemmas. And then we need to shape not just a law, but also attitudes to contraception, sex education, support for women in crisis pregnancies and for those who will be parents of severely disabled children, that will be truly compassionate.

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