North's politicians revert to type on abortion

Thu, Oct 18, 2012, 01:00

Despite representatives of every political stripe opposing new clinic, most people in North support limited abortion

TODAY MARIE Stopes International will open a private clinic in Belfast, offering early medical abortions, the first on the island of Ireland to do so.

When the news broke last week, there was a shocked hiatus, a horrified pause, while Northern Ireland’s politicians struggled to digest the fact. It has long been one of the most curious ironies of the peace process that all inter-party conflict, acrimony and dissent is set aside when it comes to opposing abortion rights for women living there. The need to maintain a pure and unbreachable hymen of pro-life moral rectitude is the one thing they can (almost) all agree on, confident that the electorate at large support their stance.

Once the revelation had sunk in, hardline Independent unionist Jim Allister was first out of the blocks to attack the clinic, adopting the usual inflammatory rhetoric about unborn children being “put to death”. He described “pro-abortionists” as “avid”.

This is a familiar implied slur: there is a weird, unexamined paranoia among many Northern politicians that pro-choice campaigners have an eager and morbid desire to increase the abortion rate, the more the better.

Allister claimed that there was no need for such a facility in Northern Ireland since the NHS already provides for abortions in the limited circumstances that the law allows.

This line, which was rapidly picked up by other politicians, is disingenuous to say the least. Just as in the Republic, the abortion law in Northern Ireland is in a mess, and a state of wilful legal limbo prevails. Not surprisingly, doctors and midwives are reluctant to test the boundaries, fearful of finding themselves at the potential risk of going to jail.

So there is no clear route for Northern women wanting to access NHS terminations. The situation is ringed about with shame, secrecy and culpable governmental obfuscation. Girls and women who find themselves in extremis, and would indeed qualify for an abortion under the existing law, are forced to export their problem to England or Wales, where they must pay privately.

The Marie Stopes clinic, while restricted in the services it can offer, at least provides a clear, non-judgmental pathway for these desperate women seeking help.

Addressing the Stormont Assembly, Minister for Health Edwin Poots offered the mantra that “pro-choice is no choice” and threatened life imprisonment for anyone breaking the abortion law. Remarkably, his next move was to call in the cops to keep an eye on things.

Such impromptu gynaecological forays are obviously outside the PSNI’s remit, and a police spokesman was quick to point out that the force is not responsible for the regulation of health clinics.

In addition, the DUP issued a one-size-fits- all statement in response to the opening of the clinic on behalf of MEP Diane Dodds, but apparently equally applicable to all female members of the party. It appears that there is no room for nuanced opinion on the issue: for the homogeneous, undifferentiated mass of DUP women, it’s Ulster Says No, No, No.

The other Northern parties also reverted to their default positions. Once again, the SDLP spoke of the “utmost compassion” it has for women with crisis pregnancies, while maintaining its resolutely anti-abortion official stance, and Sinn Féin again vacillated between outright opposition to abortion and a woman’s ultimate right to choose.

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness echoed a snide jibe first made by Jim Allister, expressing surprise that Dawn Purvis, the former loyalist politician who is the clinic’s new director, would choose to work for a private healthcare organisation, given her long-time support for the NHS. (I’m telling you, these guys really bond over the pro-life issue. Policing the Border pales into insignificance when it comes to policing women’s bodies.)

The Ulster Unionist Party declared the issue of abortion to be one of personal conscience for each of its members, but it was Anna Lo, of the Alliance party, speaking in a personal capacity, who provided the lone voice of active support for reproductive rights at Stormont.

This, then, is the high price of devolution: a half-baked theocracy that criminalises and shames women, while wilfully abdicating responsibility for the unworkable state of the law. Because, as we all know, to clarify existing abortion legislation will effectively liberalise it, and that must never, ever, be allowed to happen.

But while members of the pro-life cross-party group at Stormont – made up exclusively of men – have been piously contemplating the absolute sanctity of life, and fastidiously averting their eyes from the endless stream of distressed women crossing the Irish Sea, a change has taken place.

Studies consistently show that the majority of people in Northern Ireland now support a woman’s right to an abortion in the case of rape, incest or foetal abnormality. It may be a conservative society, but it is not one without compassion.

The exposure of the Assembly’s collective failure to protect and assist the most vulnerable women, compounded by its disgraceful dereliction of duty to health professionals, is actually fuelling pro-choice support in Northern Ireland. This is a new, surprising irony, and the message of hope it brings will resonate throughout the island.

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