It was quite the “manel” on display last week when the leaders of the North’s main Christian churches, and their Council of Churches, gathered in the Church of Ireland’s cathedral in Armagh to mark the centenary of partition. Most quoted in the extensive news coverage was the head of the Catholic Church in Ireland, Archbishop Eamon Martin, who said he had to “face the difficult truth that, perhaps, we in the churches could have done more . . . to bring healing and peace to our divided and wounded communities”.
The last time I recall these men joining forces to opine was in 2019 when they wrote to political leaders at Stormont urging them to recall the then suspended executive and stop the decriminalisation of abortion via legislation voted in at Westminster.
By coincidence the church service took place on the second anniversary of the North’s getting a British pro-choice law which is one of the most humane in Europe. But feminists marked the occasion with a protest in Belfast, because the law is not being implemented. One placard read, “Girls just want to have fun-damental human rights.”
The North’s Minister for Health, Robert Swan of the UUP, has not commissioned the abortion services required under the law and, throughout the pandemic, women still had to travel for abortions or go through with crisis pregnancies or take unregulated pills. Earlier this month, Belfast’s high court ruled in a case brought by the NI Human Rights Commission that the British secretary of state had failed to comply with his duty to ensure that abortion services were provided “expeditiously”.
While the church service was taking place in Armagh, Stormont’s health committee voted in favour of a DUP Bill which would effectively deny women their legal rights in some of the worst situations imaginable. The Bill seeks to amend the law to remove the right to abortion in cases of “severe foetal abnormality”. The law currently allows for abortion after 24 weeks’ gestation in such cases, as well as if there is a fatal foetal abnormality. In reality, tests may only indicate the presence of such abnormalities at about 20 weeks, and medical diagnosis of the difference between severe and fatal is not always possible.
The amendment would force some women to rush an inevitably fraught decision in order to have a termination in the North. Others would have to travel to England. Some, unable to do either, would be forced to carry their pregnancy to full term, or to the point when the foetus dies in their womb.
The Bill’s author is the current First Minister, Paul Givan, who believes that life begins at conception. The DUP has fought to maintain that particular border in the Irish Sea. The two DUP committee members voted for the Bill. The UUP’s one committee member also supported it, dashing any hopes that the party’s new leader, Doug Beattie, would stand up for women’s reproductive rights. The only two members who voted against the Bill were from People Before Profit and Alliance. The SDLP’s one member and Sinn Féin’s three members all abstained.
The Bill will potentially come before the full assembly for a vote within a few months. At its first stage earlier this year, just 12 out of 87 MLAs voted against it. There has since been a consultation. The NI Human Rights Commission, medical experts and others have advised that it contravenes international human rights laws and standards.
The secretary of state can overrule the Assembly on this. But northern feminists are furious that parties which claim to uphold human rights have abandoned them at this point in what has been a long, hard struggle. Women like Sarah Ewart, Ashleigh Topley and Denise Phelan laid their agony before the public and in the courts. Ewart described how her “very personal family tragedy” had been “turned into a living nightmare”. Green Party leader Claire Bailey last week pressed forward her Bill to stop anti-choice protesters harassing women outside clinics. Topley spoke about her pain on seeing protesters carrying tiny white coffins like the ones in which she and other women had to bury their babies.
A 2017 opinion poll showed 70 per cent of people in the North supported abortion in the kind of extreme circumstances* covered by Givan’s amendment. Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said in the past she would “fail as a legislator” if she did not “have an answer for all of those hard cases”. She has failed, then. The SDLP too. It wants to shed its old conservative Catholic image, yet party leader Colm Eastwood recently carried out a reshuffle that put an anti-abortion MLA on the health committee. The party allows its MLAs to vote according to their conscience – thus making it impossible for the women actually faced with these decisions to act according to theirs.
The church men are not concerned with healing the wounds caused by the denial of bodily autonomy to women. The politicians, with honourable exceptions, don’t trust women. Bernadette McAliskey made a thrilling statement at a rally for choice in Belfast in 2019. It should not sound controversial and blasphemous, but it is a difficult truth that for women in the North, it does. “This is my body,” she said.
*This article was ammended on October 26th, 2021