HEALTH minister Edwin Poots remains notionally opposed to the opening of a Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast which will allow women who are six to nine weeks pregnant to have abortions.
In embarrassingly medieval vein, Northern Ireland remains leagues behind the rest of the UK, where termination of pregnancy was legalised under the Abortion Act 1967. Currently women in Northern Ireland are only entitled to an abortion (within the six to nine week limit rather than up to 24 weeks as in the rest of the UK) if it can be shown that there is an immediate risk to the life of the mother or a risk of “real and serious” or long-term or permanent damage to her physical or mental health. Crucially, then, it is up to the judgement of doctors and psychiatrists whether a woman is entitled to terminate her pregnancy: decisions about the contents of her own uterus are cruelly and unfairly taken out of her hands.
Both Northern Ireland and the Republic have clung to a misguided religious idea of the sanctity of the embryo and this notion has meant that women who are, for example, made pregnant through rape, have the added trauma of trying to prove to doctors that they are on the verge of breakdown or suicide and so must be allowed an abortion, or they must travel to the mainland to get one, feeling shamed, landed with the stigma of having committed an apparently illegal act.
Watching the issue being debated in Stormont on Monday, it was clear that the legalities of this were, as usual, chiefly in the hands of men – which is to say, people who will never be forced to give birth to a baby against their will in screaming agony and emotional devastation.
When Ulster politicians and Precious Life campaigners insist on the evils of abortion they blithely ignore the traumas forced on women who are denied control of their bodies, made the victims of their biology, and subjected to overwhelming psychological pain by outrageous, anti-feminist legislation that is upheld nowhere else in Europe. By denying women the right to decide whether they wish to continue with a pregnancy or not, the patriarchs on the hill are showing themselves to be thoroughly misogynistic, embarrassingly anti-woman.
Anti-abortion campaigners insist that the embryo is sacred and has an inviolable right to life, that abortion is murder, that the fusion of ovum and sperm deserves more consideration than the feelings of the woman it is lodged inside. Their compassion lies entirely with something which, yes, has the potential to become a human being, but crucially is not yet a human being and cannot exist without the body that feeds it. The right to life is the most important right of all, they say. But does an unconscious bundle of cells have any idea about the right to life? It does not. And what of a woman’s right to control the contents of her own uterus? If so many other legislatures have managed to recognise the importance of this right – the right of a woman to be in charge of her body – why can’t Northern Ireland follow suit?
Why is it that so many invoke Christian ethics in defence of the unborn – who have not yet any idea of suffering – and yet fail to extend that same compassion, concern and charity to women?
The opening of the Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast is to be welcomed as a step towards greater empowerment for women, but there is still a long way to go.