Abortion law change will need sisters to do it for themselves

Political opposition to abortion changes in North doesn’t reflect polls

Dr Alasdair McDonnell, SDLP. ‘Asked about pregnancy as a result of rape, McDonnell replied: “I know a number of people who are very good normal people...who were conceived as a result of what might be termed a crime”.’ Photograph: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker

Dr Alasdair McDonnell, SDLP. ‘Asked about pregnancy as a result of rape, McDonnell replied: “I know a number of people who are very good normal people...who were conceived as a result of what might be termed a crime”.’ Photograph: Arthur Allison/Pacemaker

 

In the High Court in Belfast on Monday the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission was given leave to apply for a judicial review of the operation of abortion law.

The commission wants a declaration that women have a right to abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality or of rape or incest. A formal hearing has been set for June.

The commission intervened following the ending last month of a Northern Ireland Department of Justice consultation on proposed changes to abortion law.

The consultation recommended legalisation on the grounds of fatal foetal abnormality, but didn’t suggest change with regard to rape or incest.

It is not certain that even the recommendation in relation to foetuses with no prospect of independent life will result in action at the Assembly.

DUP and SDLP leaders have spelled out their view that a woman carrying a foetus with a fatal condition should continue to be required by law to carry the pregnancy to full term, whether or not this is what she wants and irrespective of the implications for her mental or physical health.

Anencephalic foetus

BBC presenter Stephen Nolan travelled with her to London, where she paid for a termination.

A London woman would have the procedure on the NHS.

In the same month, Nolan’s radio show carried the story of Laura, told at her five-months scan that both the twin girls she was carrying had anencephaly.

Her pleas for an abortion dismissed, she, too, had to take the plane to England. “I’m not going to be near my family. I’m not going to have any of my family’s support,” she told Nolan.

“I think it is horrendous that I have to go to a different country where I don’t know anybody.”

The coincidence of Sarah’s and Laura’s stories drew expressions of sympathy and distress from all Assembly parties. But in the cases of the DUP and SDLP at least, sympathy and distress haven’t translated into a readiness to do what it takes to save other women from the same ordeal.

SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell was asked during an interview with Mark Davenport on Radio Ulster’s Inside Politics last Saturday whether he was still adamant against legal abortion “even in those particular circumstances.” McDonnell – a general practitioner before entering politics full-time – responded: “Even in those particular circumstances because, basically, the predictions in those circumstances are never accurate. Nobody can predict that a foetus is not viable. . .

“I have seen situations where an abortion was recommended to somebody because a foetus that had this, that or the other thing, and that foetus grew up to be a perfectly normal child.”

Asked about pregnancy as a result of rape, McDonnell replied: “I know a number of people who are very good normal people . . . who were conceived as a result of what might be termed a crime.”

There would be no free vote for SDLP Assembly members. No ifs, no buts: “The SDLP policy is opposed to abortion.”

It has widely been speculated that O’Donnell hardened his line in the run-up to June’s Westminster election to portray Sinn Féin as weak on the abortion issue. But in fact, every survey of opinion in the past decade has shown separate majorities of at least 60 per cent in favour of legal abortion for fatal foetal abnormality, for rape and for incest.

The DUP makes no secret that its implacable opposition to liberalisation is rooted in religious belief.

The SDLP affects to take a more reasonable approach, but predictably arrives at the same place.

The fact that there’s the pair of them in it is used to suggest repeatedly – and, in view of consistent poll results, ridiculously – that they speak for people of all backgrounds on the issue.

One of the reasons they have so far largely gotten away with this misrepresentation is that there is no party prepared to butt heads and have it out with them.

Tip-toed towards support

Both the Ulster Unionists and Alliance see abortion as an issue for individual conscience.

Of 108 Assembly members, only two – Anna Lo of Alliance and Steven Agnew of the Greens – are openly pro-choice.

We must wait to see whether and how the law will be changed by the review proceedings in June.

Past and present experience suggests, however, that if change is to be brought about, the sisters will have to do it for themselves.

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