A FILE on abortion policy shows that the government did not try to extend the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland partly out of fears that medical staff would refuse to perform terminations.
However, ministers were advised to use other reasons in public when explaining why Northern Ireland had much stricter controls on abortion than the rest of the UK.
A file released under the 30-year rule at the Public Record Office in Belfast also shows that although no data was collected on legal abortions – where the life of the mother was at risk – there were thought to be “about 400” (seemingly per year, but the writer is not specific about the time frame).
One background note prepared in order to draft a ministerial answer to a question tabled in the House of Lords gives some insight into the mindset of the direct rule government and the civil service to the controversial issue.
Under the heading ‘Reasons for not extending the 1967 [Abortion] Act to Northern Ireland’, the December 1982 note says: “There would be considerable opposition to the extension of the 1967 Act provisions and the Order-in-Council would be controversial.
“Even if enacted, the provisions may be unworkable because large numbers of medical and nursing staff would exercise their right of conscientious objection.”
The note went on to discuss the somewhat ambiguous legalities surrounding an abortion judged necessary to save the mother’s life.
“The decision by a doctor in Northern Ireland to terminate a pregnancy is based on a 1938 judgment by Justice McNaughton that ‘where a doctor had adequate knowledge that the probable consequences of continuing the pregnancy would make the woman a physical or mental wreck then he had a duty to perform the operation’.
“This ruling had never been tested in the Northern Ireland courts. It is not known how many abortions are carried out in Northern Ireland under the McNaughton rules because no separate statistics are kept.”
Eight months earlier, an RF Mills in the Department of Health and Social Services wrote to a DJ Alexander in the NIO’s London office.
Responding to a telex from Mr Alexander, which presumably had asked questions about abortion, Mr Mills said that there were three reasons why Northern Ireland’s abortion law had not been brought into line with that in the rest of the UK.
First, he referred to the “extremely controversial” nature of the issue and said “it has been argued that there is a greater likelihood of conscientious objection in Northern Ireland in view of strongly held religious beliefs”.
Secondly, he said there was an “unwillingness to legislate on sensitive social matters which would be the responsibility of a devolved government”.
Finally, he said that issues such as abortion had always been dealt with through Private Members Bill in the Commons, not through a Government Bill.
However, he added: “Of these reasons, only the last one can readily be stated by ministers.”
A June 1981 note by a WD Thornton, seemingly in the Department of Health, refers to a query about abortion from a councillor who had claimed that there were abortions taking place in Mid Ulster Hospital.
In the note, Mr Thornton made reference to statistics and said: “From these figures you will see that it is almost impossible to separate elective terminations from all the other similar gynaecological operations.”
Handwritten at the bottom of the memo is a terse note from another official: “I should hope that it is impossible to separate elective terminations from other gynae operations because elective terminations are illegal!”
Another briefing note (whose author is unclear) in the file on abortion states that since 1970 there had been no prosecutions for illegal abortions in Northern Ireland.
It added: “The numbers of therapeutic abortions carried out in Northern Ireland are not specifically recorded but unofficial estimates have put the figure at around 400.”