Last week the Conservative’s Minister for Women Maria Miller, a self-professed ‘femininist’, announced that she was in favour of bringing the legal abortion limit down to 20 weeks.
Cue Pro-choice despair and Pro-Life approbation; when Health Minister Jeremy Hunt went on to lend his support to reducing the limit further to 12 weeks, the country seemingly, in unison, sighed and uttered ‘You plonker!’.
What’s perhaps more confounding than said Health Minister’s appointment though is how, in recent weeks and months, abortion debates have again been arising. Fortunately, while there are reasoned debates regarding what the legal limit should be, the majority of the population seem to agree that it is a women’s right to have an abortion should there be substantial social, economic, personal or medical reasons for it. Not so in Ireland.
On Thursday afternoon it was announced that Northern Ireland’s first ever private abortion clinic is to open in Belfast next week. Immediately, social networking lit up with this incendiary announcement and inevitably, spontaneous abortion debates erupted on status-upon-status, tweet-upon-tweet.
It became instantly clear that there was a lot of misinformation being consumed, regurgitated and retweeted. Marie Stopes – an organisation that has centres in over 40 countries worldwide – were indeed to open a centre but it would work within Northern Ireland’s rigid abortion laws.
Unlike in the rest of the United Kingdom, abortion is largely illegal in Northern Ireland and is permitted under the NHS only when the mother’s mental or physical health is at risk – therefore, each year there are only around 40 legal abortions carried out in Northern Ireland.
One of the many problems with this law though is that it is very vague: the ‘K case’ is one example of this. In 1993, a 14-year-old pregnant by her boyfriend was permitted an abortion because she threatened to commit suicide should she not be granted one, and therefore, it was in the interest of the mother’s safety. Throughout the years, there have been many such cases – largely uncovered – in Northern Ireland, each one further demonstrating the ineptness of the current law.
In the Republic of Ireland, things aren’t too much better: Ireland’s abortion law is enshrined in a 1983 constitutional amendment, intended to ban abortion in all circumstances. Like in N.I, however, individual cases challenged this and in 1992, the ‘X case’ involving a 14-year-old rape victim forced the Supreme Court to rule that terminations are legal should the mother’s health be at risk, mentally or physically – meaning the two Irelands’ abortion laws are now virtually identical.
It takes little time at all to realise that the reason for Irish reluctance to accept a women’s right to abortion is down almost entirely to either Catholic guilt or a genuine belief in the ‘sanctity of life’. There are only a handful of places in the European Union where you are not entitled to an abortion should you qualify: Poland, Ireland, Andorra and Malta. Can you discern what they have in common? Yes, they’re all profoundly religious – 95% of the Maltese population believing there is a god.
Ireland, despite being secular in theory, is still a deeply religious and parochial country, north and south, evidence of this can be found in its laws: divorce was only made legal in 1997, whereas homosexuality was decriminalised in 1988 at the insistence of the European Court of Human Rights – it would only be formally decriminalised through Irish parliament in 1993.
As those who find themselves pregnant by mistake, misfortune, through an instance of rape or indeed incest are not allowed a termination in their own country, many Irish women find themselves on the ferry to England in order to have the operation that is so frowned upon in their native home.
It is estimated that 30 to 40 women, from Northern Ireland alone, each week make this treacherous, emotionally exhaustive and downright expensive journey to England. That this is never addressed in the Northern Ireland assembly or in the Irish parliament is beggar’s belief, still – out of sight, out of mind, eh?
To be clear then, Marie Stopes’s new centre in Belfast would be operating under N.I laws, providing abortions to any mother whose health was severely at risk should they carry on with the pregnancy: what’s more, they would not perform any operations after 9 weeks. Essentially, the clinic would only be offering women who qualified for the operation under the NHS another option and would provide the same service for women from the south.
For a province so overtly right-wing the idea that they should be protesting against an opening of a private enterprise was deeply surreal. Of course, the hysteria and farce hadn’t truly started, hours later the demagogic founder of Pro-Life organisation Precious Life Bernadette Smyth was threatening to report Marie Stopes to the PSNI. For what exactly – opening a business? Do me a favour!
As well as offering this service, Marie Stopes would be providing sexual health information, STI and AIDs screening, family planning consultation and further projects within the community – hardly pernicious is it? This explanation of their endeavours isn’t enough to satisfy many in Northern Ireland, however, as they remain convinced that this is a conspiracy to peddle Pro-Choice literature and provoke debate – god forbid. It is no secret that Marie Stopes is Pro-Choice – it’s on their website – but to feel its presence in Ireland is going to influence people one way or the other is nonsense. Anyway, rational discourse is infinitely better than tacitly adhering to what the church says, no?
While the abortion debate is due to continue on both sides of the Irish Sea, there is a clear sense that the topic is becoming too much of a mud-fight. One side being murdering heathens, and the other religious fanatics: this occludes debate and rational discourse; it is the antithesis of what a democracy should be. The debate has now become impossible and each position almost untenable: the language often violent, emotive and often bullying one into agreement: ‘mutilation’, ‘murder’, ‘massacre’, ‘baby’.
Regardless of what one thinks of the politics of the Marie Stopes clinics, in such a parochial and conservative country, a foreign, charitable voice speaking on the behalf of women and ostensibly offering little more than help, advice and aid to those in distress, disarray and indecision can not be a negative thing. That a harmless clinic set up to benefit those who wish to use it can cause such an apparent moral outrage is not only unsettling but deeply embarrassing from an Irish perspective.