Ben Lowry: MLAs lost control of abortion by rejecting modest law reform at Stormont prior to 2017

Stormont’s reticence to act decisively over abortions is unsurprising in that it is one of the thorniest moral questions.

By Ben Lowry
Saturday, 20th March 2021, 12:54 pm
Updated Saturday, 20th March 2021, 4:00 pm
Evasive talk of women being able 'to choose' in a safe medical context sidestepped moral issues such as whether or not abortion on demand was appropriate at any stage in a pregnancy or abortion on grounds such as Down's Syndrome
Evasive talk of women being able 'to choose' in a safe medical context sidestepped moral issues such as whether or not abortion on demand was appropriate at any stage in a pregnancy or abortion on grounds such as Down's Syndrome

Forcing a woman to go through with an unwanted pregnancy is a grim situation. So is terminating a pregnancy.

For politicians and activists who are completely opposed to abortion, the matter is easy, in the sense that it is clear cut.

For politicians and activists for whom the only matter ever is the woman’s right to choose, the matter is also straightforward.

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But very many politicians are somewhere between those two poles, even in Northern Ireland, where until recently MLAs gave the impression that they were overwhelmingly anti abortion.

And it was among these politicians who took an undeclared centrist position on abortion that the reticence to act was greatest in the years prior to the 2017 collapse of Stormont.

On the one hand there were people, mostly from a conservative unionist position but often from a conservative nationalist one, who were open to some law reform but were too afraid to admit as much.

If they had helped to pass modest abortion reform years ago, the current law would only permit terminations in much more limited circumstances than they do.

On the other hand were people on the liberal end of the spectrum, who were advocates of reform, but not believers in the woman’s right to choose very late in a pregnancy.

They argued for the right to terminate in very limited numbers of cases, such as so-called fatal foetal abnormality. But this was a red herring, because such tragic cases are a tiny fraction of all pregnancies, and make up a small percentage of abortions in England and Wales.

In 2016 I was at an election hustings in South Belfast where the candidates were all appalled at the prospect of punishing women who had abortions (as was in the news due to comments by Donald Trump, and local cases of breaches of the then abortion law).

But it was easy to speak out about such stark cases. No-one grilled the candidates about whether they supported abortion on demand, as I suspected most of them did.

And sure enough it seems that they did mostly support abortion on demand, because almost all NI politicians who condemned the anti abortion laws that prevailed in 2016 now support the current dispensation on both sides of the Irish border (of abortion on demand in the first third of a pregnancy).

Such a failure to say what you really think was apparent again in the recent debate over terminations of foetuses with Down’s Syndrome in Northern Ireland.

I heard MLAs sidestep the rights and wrongs of such terminations by angrily saying things such as that it was an insult to say that any woman would have an abortion lightly.

Or they said that any decision over whether or not to terminate such a pregnancy, and if so the procedure itself, would only happen in the safe context of highly trained healthcare professionals.

Such talk is evasive. The question is: do we as a society support the right to terminate on grounds such as Down’s? The unpalatable evidence is that overwhelmingly parents do end such pregnancies when they can. The right to abort in those situations was quietly inserted into law in NI.

But dishonesty has long characterised the politics around abortion on the mainland too.

In theory Great Britain has since 1967 had a strict regime for abortions, that can only happen for sound medical reasons. In reality GB has abortion on demand until 24 weeks in a pregnancy, which is far later than in most nations.

The fact that very few doctors are prepared to carry out abortions after 15 weeks is, I believe, a reflection of the horrifying nature of such procedures.

If Stormont had aimed for minor liberalisation it could have maintained the strictest abortion policy on these islands — perhaps confined to the pre surgical stage.

It might then have been a model for other countries which want to tighten access to abortion. In America, for example, some states are trying to limit greatly the circumstances in which an abortion can happen.

It is in many respects reasonable that Brandon Lewis intervened over the local failure to provide services for which the law allowed.

But his determination to do so contrasts starkly with the Conservative government’s complete refusal to intervene after Sinn Fein brought down Stormont in 2017.

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

• Earlier columns by Ben Lowry below

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