Ben Lowry: The real debate is over abortion on demand, but is yet to be had

A hospital bed
A hospital bed

The Sinn Fein motion today on abortion is highly significant.

It is a possible first step towards abortion on demand in Northern Ireland [this article was writen on Friday night, before the debate].

The motion only seeks to widen SF support for terminations when “a woman’s life or health” is at risk from current support for abortions in cases of fatal foetal abnormality or after sexual assault.

In theory the 1967 Abortion Act in Great Britain only permits terminations when there is a health risk to foetus or mother, but in practice it facilitates abortion on demand.

Not only have journalistic undercover investigations shown that abortions are simply signed off rather than properly assessed according to the law, but groups including the doctors’ union, the BMA, want the law formally to allow the abortion on demand that is already happening on a huge scale.

Abortion practice in Great Britain is in fact more slack than many countries that formally allow abortion on demand. France, Germany and the US permit abortion on demand in roughly the first third of a pregnancy, to 12 or 13 weeks.

Great Britain, however, allows terminations up to 24 weeks, which as said above, in reality means abortion on demand up to 24 weeks.

There is political cowardice on both sides of the Irish Sea and border over abortion policy. Why do advocates of abortion on demand not just say so, like the BMA?

Why do they not say that this is the practice across the western world early in a pregnancy?

The failure to codify in law in GB what is permitted in practice has led to horrifyingly late abortions (the time limit is so late because the terms are supposedly so strict).

England and Wales have difficulty finding medics who will perform abortions after the first trimester, so grisly is the procedure.

But in Northern Ireland the debate has also lacked candour. There are bids to make abortion legal in cases of fatal foetal abnormality and other instances that make up only a tiny fraction of terminations.

Yet polls have shown notable support (up to 50%) for abortion on demand early in a pregnancy.

There are probably many Stormont MLAs who support choice early in a pregnancy but few argue for it. This has led to the UK, Welsh and Scottish governments stepping in, and women will now be facilitated to have abortions there.

As it happens, my journey has been from strongly pro choice to increasingly anti abortion but I still think the choice should lie with the woman at the start of a pregnancy.

The law will liberalise on both sides of the Irish border, and it is better this is done after full debate rather than by legislation that fails to reflect in its wording what it allows in practice (ie 1967 Act).

The debate should be blunt. I do not think it illegitimate to use ‘shock’ tactics such as showing aborted foetuses. I have never forgotten an image of an aborted foetus by a protestor outside the Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast. I never want to see it again but it did hasten my support for lowering the GB time limit to under 18 weeks, to bar obscenely late terminations.

I believe technology will make it increasingly hard to ignore the horror of what actually happens in an abortion. But most people in western societies believe abortions early in a pregnancy are less bad than an unwanted pregnancy.

This is widely believed in NI too, even if support for it is lower than in most other western countries. Yet it is barely being discussed here.

It is not as if there will ever be consensus that early abortions are OK. Indeed, groups such as Both Lives Matter believe it is particularly important to stop early terminations, because foetal life is being ended on a vast scale at that early stage when it is easier to ignore the truth of what is happening.

These points can all be made in the debate on allowing early terminations, if the debate ever is held.

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

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