No matter what side of the debate one falls on, we can perhaps agree that there is nothing civilised or humane about this case.
The details are inescapably gory: in July 2014, a 19 year-old woman procured abortion pills online and subsequently miscarried a ten to twelve week old baby.
Now 21, she appeared in court on Tuesday and was found guilty of procuring her own abortion by using a poisonous substance, and of supplying a poison with intent to procure a miscarriage. She received a three-month suspended sentence.
The girl’s housemates, who later reported the matter to the police, have described their horror and distress during and after the incident, and it is not hard to see why. One witness who saw the baby in the bin commented, “I didn’t expect the baby to be so fully formed. He had fingers, little toes. Even now I just have a picture in my mind of it…It has done so much damage to me mentally”.
Some groups are using this as an excuse to tell people how to access these pills online. Public broadcasters would not allow someone to tell the public how to break the law in any other way, but have made an allowance for this with abortion. This raises concerns about impartiality, and impunity.
We want to see tough sanctions against the suppliers of these unregulated online pills and those who irresponsibly advocate their use. The law plays an important regulatory role in society, and it is in the public interest for it to be respected and upheld.
The campaign to decriminalise abortion seeks to privatise the value of life. Let’s be very clear about what decriminalisation means - Without a criminal aspect to the law on abortion any woman can have an abortion at any stage of pregnancy for any reason. This goes far beyond the 1967 Act and is abortion on demand. But human life is not just of private concern and personal value. Human life has a public and community value. The law in Northern Ireland and every other jurisdiction so values human life that the taking of life sits under criminal law.
Abortion is illegal across the UK except under certain circumstances set down by the law. In seeking to balance the rights of the mother and the unborn child, Northern Ireland simply sets a higher bar for abortion. Much criticism has been levelled at the age of the act – the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 - the same law that still governs many assault cases heard by the courts on a daily basis.
It is the content of the Act, and not its age, that is important. Two lives are recognised in the law in Northern Ireland, and both are protected as far as humanly possible. Abortion is not allowed solely for the purpose of ending the life of the unborn child. Any change predicated on devaluing the newest and most vulnerable members of humanity is, without a doubt, regressive.
On the other hand, there are those who are calling for tougher sentences. That is not the answer either and disregards the various steps in the legal process that have brought us to this point. There is legal discretion in these difficult cases. The PSNI have discretion as to whether they are convinced there is enough evidence to send cases to the PPS. The PPS have discretion as to whether prosecution is in the public interest.
The judge has discretion in sentencing. The judge has used his discretion and has struck a balance, and the result was a suspended sentence. The life of the unborn child was acknowledged and valued by the law, and the circumstances of the woman, now a new mother to another child, were taken into account.
Nobody wants to see an isolated 19 year-old woman end the life of her unborn child in a bloody mess dumped in a bin. The tragedy is that legalising the pills would not change the end result - a bloody mess to be disposed of. That is the harsh reality few seem to want to address.
Campaigns to decriminalise abortion through cases like this are cynical. This pregnancy was not one of the ‘hard cases’ of ‘fatal foetal abnormality’ or sexual crime, but the distressing details of this case are being used to promote a change in the law to allow abortion in any circumstance. Our first response must be compassion and support for every woman in these circumstances and for those who have made this decision. But our compassion must not lead us to endorse the decriminalisation of abortion and the upending of a law which protects the value of human life for everyone.
Dawn McAvoy is researcher Evangelical Alliance NI