Extending abortion rights to N. Ireland


11:37 pm - September 8th 2008

by Natalie Bennett    


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The abortion law in England, Scotland and Wales is far from perfect. The unnecessary two-rule, the restrictions that prevent women who choose to do so completing medical abortions at home, the prevention of nurses and midwives providing the service. But those problems are slight compared to the situation for women in Northern Ireland, where women have almost no access to abortion at all.

As a result of past and present cowardice, grubby dealmaking and other political skulduggery, the 1967 Abortion Act that applies in England, Scotland and Wales does not apply in Northern Ireland. The basic rules date back to 1927 – but there are no clear guidelines. So only 70 to 80 abortions are carried out each year in Northern Ireland, under extremely restrictive conditions.

Otherwise, by the official count, more than 1,300 women last year, and 50,000 women over the past 40 years, have had to travel to England, Wales or Scotland, or even further afield, and to pay for their abortion, since if they give a Northern Ireland address they cannot have an NHS abortion.

The minimum cost, with travel, of that is £450, but it may well be more, plus the added personal and financial costs of lost pay, providing substitute care for women who are carers etc.

And the real figures of women leaving Northern Ireland to have an abortion must be far, far higher, since many women must – and who can blame them – use another address to access free NHS services.

Just imagine a typical situation, which I heard described a couple of years ago. A woman in her mid-20s, with two or three children, quite likely a single mother, is studying, or startingto get her career started. Contraception fails. She has to find many hundreds of pounds, has to find someone to care for her children while she’s away for several days (and come up with some explanation for that if she doesn’t want to tell the temporary carer the real reason).

She’s in a far worse situation than her compatriot in England, Wales or Scotland – because of a blatantly discriminatory law.

But that could change next month. An amendment has been moved in association with the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, which would bring the abortion law in Northern Ireland into line with other parts of the UK.

The movers seem quite optimistic about its chances, and one can only hope.

And, I’m pleased to say, draw attention to the issue, as I’m doing here, and as was done at the Green Party annual conference in London, which passed an emergency motion calling on MPs to vote in favour of the amendment.*

It’s not an easy topic to raise and get attention paid to. As soon as you mention any issues associated with Northern Ireland a great many journalists and political types roll their eyes and change the subject, and then if you combine that with abortion – a subject that tends to sink into conversations of uncomfortable silence – you’re really fighting a battle (although I’m pleased to say the emergency motion received overwhelming support, with only a handful of votes against it).

But if this is the United Kingdom, surely women across it should all have the same rights?

* Declaration of interest: I moved the emergency motion at the Green Party conference.

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About the author
Natalie Bennett is leader of the Green Party of England and Wales
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Equality ,Feminism ,Green party ,Westminster

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Reader comments


1. Mike Killingworth

Why has the women’s movement failed to make the case for abortion in Northern Ireland? Last year the Assembly voted overwhelmingly to maintain the status quo. Deplorable, but democratic.

Surely it would be more sensible to campaign for the provision of NHS abortions to women from Northern Ireland who come to Britain? That provides both access to abortion and respects the principle of devolution, which I would have thought that the Green Party would approve of.

I’m sure you’re right to suggest that many women in that position find a British address for the purpose – as I suspect women from the Republic do, too. No doubt, and rightly, British feminists assist in that process.

IIRC, the Green Party wants to pull Britain out of the EU. If we did leave, would you then want to impose trade sanctions on the Irish Republic until it came up with a sufficiently liberal abortion law?
What’s the position of the Irish Green party (which either is or recently has been in government in Dublin) on the question?

“Last year the Assembly voted overwhelmingly to maintain the status quo. Deplorable, but democratic”

Hmm. Some might argue that a body consisting entirely of hardline conservative religious types and hardline conservative different-religious types, held together by a combination of snout-in-troughery and liberal-hating, and voted for by a populace whose only real criterion is for the allies of said policiticians to stop shooting them and blowing them up, isn’t brilliantly equipped to make decisions on social policy.

But those kind of churls would probably also sneer at the wonderful democracies we’ve established in Iraq and Afghanistan…

Well done for pushing this at the Green Party conference Natalie.

Whatever the view one takes on abortion the above is most illiberal and makes the case for the overthrow of democracy.
The true liberal allows differing views and does not impose fundamentalist views on either majorities or minorities.
Where two rights are in tension at the very least the resolution should not result in the death of one of those affected.
No mother has ever been put to death to save the life of an unborn baby. Millions of unborn babies have been put to death for the sake of proposed well being of many mothers.
New life is the hope for a nation. Too precious to destroy.


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