Party political policy on abortion remains as entrenched as ever in Northern Ireland despite a survey which, it is claimed, shows that the law here is “out of line” with public opinion.
In a study carried out for Amnesty International, researchers found that seven in 10 people in the Province back a relaxation of abortion laws to allow terminations in certain circumstances.
With the 1967 Abortion Act, applicable in Great Britain, not extending to Northern Ireland, it is estimated that around 1,500 women travel to England for the procedure each year.
Amnesty’s Grainne Teggart said: “It is shocking that in 2014 it is still not possible for a woman in Northern Ireland to have an abortion where the pregnancy is a result of her being raped or where there is a fatal foetal abnormality.
“Women, finding themselves in the most distressing of circumstances, should not also face the threat of imprisonment for making deeply personal choices about their pregnancies.”
Ms Teggart added: “Northern Ireland’s abortion laws are not only out of line with international human rights standards, they are also utterly out of line with public opinion here.”
The Amnesty survey, carried out by Millward Brown, examined the views of more than 1,000 people representing a mix of gender, age, social class, political and religious affiliation.
It comes just weeks after Justice Minister David Ford launched a consultation process on future legislation which could allow abortions in cases of fatal foetal abnormality.
The survey found that 69 per cent of people think abortion should be permissible where the pregnancy is the result of rape, 68 per cent in cases of incest and 60 per cent where the foetus has a fatal abnormality.
The survey also shows that more unionists than nationalists/republicans are in favour of a change in the law.
However, the DUP remains at the spearhead of opposition to change.
In a statement, a DUP spokesman said: “The party’s position on abortion is well known but we recognise, as does the present law, that in certain circumstances there are exceptions.
“We are studying the options proposed in the consultation exercise to see the extent to which any of the options provided are consistent with our stated position.”
The SDLP’s Fearghal McKinney said his party remained “fundamentally opposed to any extension of the 1967 act to Northern Ireland” – even in the case of fatal foetal abnormality.
By contrast, both the UUP and Alliance parties allow MLAs to vote with their conscience on the emotive issue.
UUP leader Mike Nesbitt said: “We are waiting for the consultation and the justice minister has been liaising with the minister for health. My view is that we need a consultation and that a woman’s voice should be stronger by a long way in that consultation.”
Alliance East Belfast MP Naomi Long said: “I think to carry, against your wishes, a baby which you know will not survive I think is a trauma which is possibly best understood by a woman.”