Belfast Telegraph

Fionola Meredith: Pro-lifers are entitled to their opinions, but they've no right to impose them on the rest of us

No one relishes the idea of abortion, writes Fionola Meredith, but campaigners understand the painful necessity of it

A protest in support of changing the abortion law
A protest in support of changing the abortion law
Fionola Meredith

By Fionola Meredith

Change is coming. In just a few days, barring the sudden and highly improbable resurrection of the Assembly, abortion will be decriminalised in Northern Ireland.

After October 21, women will no longer be threatened under the law with dire penalties - some of the harshest in the world - if they choose to end a pregnancy, for whatever reason. They will no longer be treated as criminals, purely for exerting sovereignty over something which is entirely and absolutely personal to them: their own bodies.

The day that happens will represent a resounding victory for justice and freedom in this land.

Before that day comes, however, I've been thinking about the people who oppose abortion law reform.

I don't mean the wild-eyed, so-called 'pro-life' activists who brandish pictures of aborted foetuses in the street or harangue women attending family planning clinics, accusing them of murdering their babies.

No, I mean ordinary people who would never dream of actively trying to intervene in the lives of others, but who just can't get their heads - or hearts - around the idea of terminating the existence of a developing embryo in the womb.

For them, it's a matter of religious or moral principle. They simply believe it's wrong.

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I know people like that. I'm friends with some of them. No doubt they would count themselves among the 52% of people in Northern Ireland who, in a recent internet opinion poll, said they were opposed to the "new abortion regime in Northern Ireland", to be "imposed" by Westminster.

The findings of the poll, which was commissioned by the anti-abortion campaign group Both Lives Matter, are out of kilter with other polls on abortion law reform, which have consistently shown support for change.

And the language of the question, with its reference to 'imposing' a 'regime', sounded far from neutral.

Yet I don't believe the findings should be dismissed. Even for those of us who have long been passionate advocates of reproductive rights, it seems a shame that law reform has come not through the creative progress of devolved politics, but through the absence of a locally accountable administration.

It was the ongoing collapse of the democratic process here that finally forced Westminster to act on behalf of the ignored and suffering women of Northern Ireland.

So to those who oppose the coming legislative change, this is what I say.

Of course you are entitled to your opinion on abortion. I respect that right and would never seek to silence, suppress or ban your views.

But you do not have a right to impose your principles on others. I don't care whether you are a bishop or a church elder, you do not have a monopoly on morality. None of us can claim to be the absolute arbiters of good and evil, right and wrong.

The decision over whether to get an abortion or not belongs with the woman who is carrying the unwanted pregnancy. It should ultimately be up to her conscience, and hers alone, whether she chooses to continue with the pregnancy or end it.

Maybe you secretly think that people like me, who support reproductive choice, are cold and callous, that we don't care about the embryo in the womb.

It's not that we don't care. Nobody relishes or enjoys the idea of abortion: that would be bloodthirsty and weird. It is simply that we recognise the painful necessity of it.

We must put the needs of the actual human being who is living, breathing and making decisions in the world - in other words, the woman - ahead of the needs of the potential human being inside her body.

And I can't help noticing that some of you who oppose abortion - indeed, many of you - are men.

This does not detract from your right to have an opinion on the subject, of course. If you're a man who holds the view that abortion is wrong, I have no issue with that. Where I have the problem, however, is with men who actively campaign or lobby against a woman's right to choose. That's where I really lose patience.

My question to these men is this: how dare you? Why do you presume to dictate the terms of the ultimate life-changing experience - bearing a child - when you will never be in the position of carrying a child yourself? How can you so arrogantly assume moral agency on behalf of another person?

The decriminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland means that moral decision-making will at last move into the hands of the only person qualified to choose: the woman herself.

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