Sammy Morrison: Scandalous health statistics conceal real scale of abortion in Northern Ireland
‘You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know.’
He did that after a highly successful campaign to highlight the evils of the slave trade.
Characters such as Olaudah Equiano, an ex-slave, toured the British Isles in order to bring the reality of its evils home to people.
In 1791 Equiano visited Belfast to promote his autobiography and build opposition to the slave trade here.
Personal stories such as Equiano’s were an important aspect of the campaign against slavery but so were statistics.
The infamous drawing illustrating how slaves were packed onto ships is one famous example of how the abolitions used data as well as personal stories to fight their cause.
One cannot appreciate the scale of anything without statistic.
That is why the current practice of the Department of Health to release figures on abortion which hide the true scale of the issue is so scandalous.
They seem to wish that none of us know. The News Letter has been the only publication which has picked up on the fact that a statement by the Department saying there were 53 abortions in Health and Social Care hospitals in Northern Ireland in 2021/22 is seriously misleading, as it failed to note that a total of 1,684 abortions were carried out over the same period (‘Row over reporting of abortion figures,’ January 20).
This laughable figure of 53 abortions is arrived by the department only including those performed on hospital in-patients and day cases but it excludes the many terminations outside that setting.
Jim Allister established in Assembly questions that up until September last year 4,136 abortions were performed since our laws were changed in March 2020.
Yet even through this avenue there is much which cannot be discovered. Uniquely within the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland does not collect data on the reasons why an abortion is performed. Statistics on how deprivation relates to abortion are not published here like they are in Great Britain.
If the termination of unborn children is really about a compassionate response to difficult situations then why do we not have data on circumstances such as deprivation.
And if those who framed their arguments for ‘reform’ in terms of bringing us into line with the rest of the UK then why do they not demand the same uniformity when it comes to statistics?
The judgement of the Supreme Court which upheld the ban on protests in the vicinity of places were abortions are performed included this quite remarkable passage: “The right of women in Northern Ireland to access abortion services has now been established in law through the processes of democracy ... A legal system which enabled those who had lost the political debate to undermine the legislation permitting abortion, by relying on freedom of conscience, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, would in practice align the law with the values of the opponents of reform and deprive women of the protection of rights which have been legislatively enacted.”
It would have been a poor look out for the campaign for the abolition of slavery had those who advocated for the personhood of black people faced our Supreme Court in the late 18th century.
But back to abolitionists. While the visit of Olaudah Equiano to Belfast has been largely forgotten, that of another abolitionist will soon gain a permanent memorial.
Two years ago, Belfast City Council approved the erection of a statue to mark Frederick Douglass’s visit to the city in 1845. Douglass, as anyone who has read his writings will appreciate, was the most articulate voice for freedom from slavery which his age produced.
In light of the Supreme Court’s ruling we would do well to reflect on what Douglass regarded as being the most fundamental of liberties:
“Liberty is meaningless where the right to utter one's thoughts and opinions has ceased to exist. That, of all rights, is the dread of tyrants. It is the right which they first of all strike down. They know its power. Thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers, founded in injustice and wrong, are sure to tremble, if men are allowed to reason of righteousness, temperance, and of a judgment to come in their presence.”