Confusion among 1980s civil servants over legal position on aborting disabled

Civil servants appear to have been confused over the legal position of abortion in Northern Ireland in the early 1980s
Civil servants appear to have been confused over the legal position of abortion in Northern Ireland in the early 1980s

There was confusion among civil servants in the early 1980s as to whether it was legal to have an abortion if the unborn child was severely disabled, government files reveal.

Files released at the Public Record Office in Belfast under the new 20-year-rule show how officials grappled with an issue which remains highly controversial to this day.

A February 1983 memo (it is contained in a file which was not closed until 1985) prepared for junior NIO minister Lord Gowrie ahead of a meeting with the Women’s Law and Research Group gave two examples of grounds for legal abortion in the Province.

The first, it said was “to save the life of the mother or prevent injury to her” and the second was “where there is a substantial risk that the child will be born seriously handicapped”.

However, an unknown official has underlined the second example and written in the margin “No”.

But two years later, in June 1985, a letter from R Kennedy in the General Hospitals Branch repeated that scenario.

Responding to a query from a Mr P Moneypenny in the NIO’s Criminal Justice Division, he said: “I can confirm that terminations of pregnancy are carried out, with the woman’s full and informed consent, in hospitals in Northern Ireland only in circumstances where the life of the woman is threatened by the pregnancy, or where the continuance of the pregnancy is likely to cause grave danger to her physical or mental health.”

Later in the letter, he added: “It is possible that the risk of giving birth to a severely handicapped child might be one circumstance which, together with all other aspects of a case, could be considered to so severely affect a woman’s health as to necessitate the termination of the pregnancy.”

Another briefing paper in the file, prepared for NIO junior minister John Patten ahead of a meeting with the anti-abortion group LIFE in 1981, stated that there were no separate records of legal abortions in the Province.

However, it said that “unofficial estimates have put the figure at around 400 a year”. It added that between 1968 and 1978 there were six deaths of mothers as a result of abortion which had been recorded with the Registrar General’s Office.

It said that it was not possible to state whether those were legal or illegal abortions but said that the Confidential Enquiry into Maternal Deaths found that during that same period seven women died as a result of abortion – and that of those, four were the result of illegal abortions.

It added: “It is considered that the number of illegal abortions must be very small but there has been a recent prosecution for illegal abortion, the first since 1970.

“This case was brought against a Belfast GP who, within the past two weeks, has been convicted of seven charges of procuring miscarriages for three women and sentenced to three years’ imprisonment.”

Separate figures in the same briefing paper showed that the number of Ulster women travelling to the mainland for abortions had soared during the 1970s.

In 1972, there were 775 women with Northern Ireland addresses who had abortions elsewhere in the UK. By 1979, that had almost doubled to 1,429. The briefing paper noted that the figures were likely underestimates as some women “use convenience addresses in Great Britain”.