Derry Girls on abortion: ‘real’ aim of decriminalisation debated

Derry Girls has been hailed as one of the hit TV comedies of the past year, winning numerous awards and fans across the UK and beyond.

Saturday, 2nd March 2019, 6:30 am
Updated Monday, 4th March 2019, 11:05 am
Derry Girls cast members Siobhan McSweeney and Nicola Coughlan (right) join MPs and women impacted by Northern Ireland's strict abortion laws on Westminster Bridge in London. They had a petition of almost 70,000 signatures calling on the Secretary of State to force through reforms. Photo: Jonathan Brady /PA Wire

But for some admirers, the laughing stopped this week when members of the cast took part in a serious high profile campaign for reform of abortion legislation in Northern Ireland. Abortion is illegal in NI unless there is a serious risk to a woman’s life or health.

As part of a protest organised by Amnesty International, 28 women marched to Parliament this week calling for decriminalisation of NI abortion law, representing the women who fly to GB for an abortion each week.

The campaigners included Derry Girls actors Siobhan McSweeney, who plays Sister Michael and Nicola Coughlan, who plays Clare.

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Pro-life campaigner Bernie Smyth of Precious Life says the real aim of decriminalisation is to allow abortion right up until birth and to allow any baby that survives an attempted abortion to pass away. Photo: Jonathan Porter/PressEye

A counter demonstration by pro-life group Both Lives Matter saw ten women, each holding a box containing 10,000 names, marching to Parliament, representing the 10,000 people they estimate are alive today because of NI abortion laws.

However pro-life campaigner Bernie Smyth of Precious life claimed that few people truly understand what Amnesty is pressing for.

She said they are not pressing for the extension of GB legislation to NI, which requires two doctors to agree there are medical grounds for an abortion and that it must be take place within six months from conception.

But Ms Smyth claims the campaigners are actually calling for total decriminalisation, which she says would permit abortions right up until birth - and make it lawful to leave a baby to die if it survives an attempted abortion.

Pro-life campaigners marched on Parliament on Tuesday to highlight the 100,000 people they estimate are alive today because of NIs strict abortion laws. The march was lead by 10 women each holding a box representing 10,000 people, and was organised by Both Lives Matter, a seperate group to Precious Life.

“The word decriminalisation is a euphemism for the legalisation of abortion right up to birth,” she said. “Putting a time limit on abortion goes against the whole belief system of abortion extremists because this is infringing upon ‘choice’ which in their eyes should be boundless for the woman.

“Decriminalisation of abortion across the entire UK is their ultimate goal. However decriminalisation also removes all legal protections for a pregnancy from deliberate domestic violence, dangerous driving, assaults, attacks or medical negligence. Under decriminalisation nobody would be held responsible for any of these actions if they result in the death of an unborn child, because it would have no protection in law.”

In New York this month Anthony Hobson was arrested for the fatal stabbing of his pregnant ex-girlfriend, Jennifer Irigoyen. “Prosecutors charged him with murder but were surprised to find that due to decriminalisation now they are no longer able to charge him with any criminal offence for the death of the unborn child,” Ms Smyth said.

She added: “The advert for the new series of ‘Derry Girls’ states, ‘You only get one life. Find your voice.’ Yet these actresses are pushing for the slaughter of innocent unborn children in the womb who have no voice.”

Speaking on BBC Talkback this week, actress Siobham McSweeeny affirmed her support for decriminalisation.

“We are going to hand in a petition of nearly 70,000 signatories demanding that the archaic and cruel laws that still exist in NI but not in the rest of the UK be taken away and decriminalised,” she said.

Asked if the cast were not concerned about alienating fans, she replied: “This is a human rights issue, not a moral issue. What we are asking for is choice.... We all in the cast greatly support this issue.”

Caller ‘June from Banbridge’ was angered. “I will never watch their old programme again,” she said. “Give them five minutes of fame and they can decide whenever you should live or die.”

But Jackie from Belfast, who is originally from Londonderry, firmly supported the Derry Girls.

“At 32 I had to travel to Birmingham for an abortion,” she said. “I felt and was treated like a criminal in my own community.”

Amnesty International NI campaigner Grainne Teggart responded that there “are lots of inaccuracies” in Ms Smyth’s claims, although she declined to single any out.

Instead, she supplied a list of links to websites for “for accurate, medical and professional information on what decriminalisation means”.

Organisations which support decriminalisation, she noted, include the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, The Royal Colleges of GPs and Midwives and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, a British charity which provides abortions.