In a recent leader’s debate on UTV the leaders of the five main political parties in Northern Ireland were all asked about their response to the conviction and suspended sentence that was handed down to an unnamed young woman who had procured pills to induce an abortion – I’ll come to that in a second but here’s a bit of backstory for you. I like to get you all caught up before I delve into a serious rant.
Despite the fact that abortion is completely legal in mainland Britain, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands, the 1861 Offences Against The Persons Act is the law of the land in Northern Ireland in matters concerning terminations of pregnanies. It is a criminal act in Northern Ireland in 2016 to procure an abortion or assist someone in obtaining an abortion – the only other option is to travel to the mainland to have the procedure which isn’t free (unless you’re a resident of England, Scotland or Wales) but it is safe, and it is legal. It is not a crime for Northern Irish women to access abortion procedures in other jurisdictions.
Earlier in 2016 a young woman was reported to the PSNI for inducing an abortion through abortifacent pills that she had requested online. She was subsequently convicted and given a suspended three month prison sentence. The issue, of course, has generated much debate which has become a key issue in the lead up to the 2016 NI Assembly elections with all parties and almost all candidates declaring which side of the debate they are on. Arguably these positions should have been clarified long, long before devolution even became a reality but we are where we are. In responding to the question on whether or not the young woman in question should have been criminalised for her actions both the Arlene Foster and Colum Eastwood claimed that as a society we should “wrap our arms” around young women in a crisis – so why then did they sink any attempt to amend the existing laws when the opportunity presented itself during the amendments to the Justice Bill?
We cannot hope for our judges to show leniancy and compassion if and when another vulnerable woman is brought to a courtroom for taking matters into her own hands. Personally expressing your concern and hoping for compassion whilst stopping short of changing the law to prevent those situations even ocurring when you have been in a position to do so is bare faced electoral opportuism. It’s cowardice and it does not help the almost one thousand women who had to travel to Great Britain to access abortion care. Women have been pushed to the brink by having to self-medicate for a healthcare issue and face a criminal record for doing so. The current law as it stands is unfit for purpose and both the SDLP and DUP’s leaders can gush their hearts out until they are blue in the face on TV when asked about criminalising of abortion but the fact of the matter is that we are in a situation where we could potentially have a woman be handed a life sentence for procuring and using abortion pills. The current law allows for such and the SDLP, DUP and even the Alliance Party, Sinn Fein and UUP have fallen way short of providing the type of legislative compassion and leadership that is needed.
Simply leaving the matter down to the individual conscience of elected reps or only pushing for abortion in certain circumstances is not brave or sensible. They are opt-outs dressed as compromises. The main parties have all voiced their opposition to the extension to Northern Ireland of the 1967 Abortion Act (which regulates the issue in Wales, Scotland and England) when asked about reforming the current laws here however that is a non-issue and a clever side-stepping of the issue. With a Conservative majority Government in Westminster which may rely on the support of SDLP, DUP and pro-life UUP MPs to see off backbench rebellions there is next to no chance that the Secretary for State will move unilaterally on the matter without calling into question the undermining of devolved issues and royally pissing off the DUP. What Northern Ireland needs is for our MLAs to legislate for the matter in the Assembly and do the right thing and worry about the frankly irrelevant electoral impact in 2019.
I suspect the issue will dent the SDLP more than the DUP in their stronger areas such as South and North Belfast – especially amongst younger voters. This was an opportunity for Colum Eastwood to outflank Alliance and the UUP but it looks like more of the same, unfortunately.
Doing the right thing and doing the popular thing are seldom the same however the matter of abortion has saturated the airwaves and become a key battleground for political parties in Northern Ireland – forty nine years after the rest of the United Kingdom agreed that it was better for women to have safe, free and legal access to medical care rather than hope for the best by consulting Google and procuring tablets on the internet.