Ben Lowry: The cowardice and dishonesty that marks abortion law in GB and Ireland

To understand why abortion law in Northern Ireland is unlikely to change much in the next Assembly, consider a hustings I was at on Thursday.

Saturday, 9th April 2016, 11:45 am
Updated Saturday, 9th April 2016, 12:42 pm
Opinion in the western world might move towards allowing abortions in the pre-surgical stage

It was in South Belfast, where I live, and I went along more as a voter than journalist.

The candidates for MLA in the constituency are thoughtful and moderate. Many of the questions on Thursday were about local matters but some were on broader topics, including a man who asked about Donald Trump’s view that women who have abortions should be punished.

That comment was met with outrage, even in the US Republican Party which is now dominated by hardline stances on many issues. Mr Trump backtracked.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

In Northern Ireland that very scenario happened this week. A woman aged 21 was given a suspended jail term for a self-induced abortion.

But the extraordinary thing in that sequence is not the sentence she was given, nor the fact that a prosecution was brought. It is that many politicians who were horrified by the sentence want to keep the law that resulted in such an outcome.

The candidates on Thursday all seemed (I say seemed, because I did not get to ask a follow-on question) to condemn Mr Trump and the concept of punishing women.

I wanted to ask if any of them supported early term abortions on demand, as is legal across the western world.

It would have to be legal here, too, for that woman to have avoided prosecution.

There is barely an MLA who advocates abortion on demand in Northern Ireland, no matter how early in the pregnancy.

I have seen polls on both sides of the border that indicate significant public support, 40%+, for early terminations on demand, yet it is not even on the radar at Stormont or in the Dail.

There is overwhelming public support for modest changes to the law that Stormont has so far rejected, to allow terminations in cases of fatal foetal abnormality. There is similar support in cases of rape and incest.

But as I understand it, this pregnancy did not fall within those categories. In other words, politicians have expressed outrage at a situation they will not even discuss.

Some of them seem to imply that punishing the woman is not the right way to proceed and that the state should instead pursue the provider.

The logic of that position is that such an abortion should be illegal but that the woman involved should not be considered to have committed an offence. Or perhaps that she should only be liable to a fine or a warning.

This saga has illustrated the political cowardice and disingenuousness that underscores abortion policy on both sides of the Irish border.

But there is dishonesty in Great Britain too. Almost no-one there argues for abortion on demand but it is the de facto position. The 1967 Abortion Act does not permit abortion on demand. Two doctors have to agree that the health of the woman or child is at risk. But in practice this often does not happen and any woman who seeks an abortion will get one.

Abortion on demand is allowed in the first third of a pregnancy in France, Germany and America (guaranteed under Roe v Wade).

But dishonesty prevails on both sides of the Irish Sea.

In GB there is no controversy at the current de facto position, which suggests widespread support for abortion on demand (which is allowed all the way up to 24 weeks). Why does the law there not admit that?

And if in Ireland (north and south) there is significant support for abortion on demand, why is it not at least debated?

In summary, GB has an extreme liberal position but the wording of the law pretends it does not.

Ireland, north and south, has an extreme restrictive policy, but will not legislate for the modest reform that has huge support and will not even discuss wider reform.

This is because almost no-one wants to sound like they support abortion, and so they hide behind demands for guidelines or backing for terminations in extreme situations such as fatal foetal abnormality that make up a tiny fraction of pregnancies.

The reticence is easy to understand. Even as I write this I feel the need to state that I am no abortion enthusiast.

My own journey mirrors the journey of society in places such as America, and perhaps one day GB, where there seems to be a gradual move towards a ‘pro-life’ position as technology makes it harder for us to ignore what a termination actually entails.

I was strongly pro-choice and used to think that allowing abortions in the first trimester was the obvious compromise. A number of things have made me uneasy even about that stance, including seeing the 12-week scan of my now godson.

If I was to predict where opinion in the western world was going, I would say it is towards support for abortions done in the pre-surgical stage – ie somewhere between the de facto position in GB and the full ban in Ireland.

The horrific description of the aborted foetus in this week’s case shows that even an early abortion is a horror.

The Catholic Church has had admirable ‘pro-life’ consistency in its belief both that life begins at conception and that the death penalty is wrong. So I was impressed to hear the DUP’s Christopher Stalford say on Thursday night that he too opposed both. In the old days, conservative Christian unionists were anti-abortion but also pro-death penalty, almost to a man.

The churches might be right on the moral point about terminations, as the Quakers might be right about pacifism. But as with war and the big ethical issues, we are a long way from the perfect worlds to which they aspire.

I hope we reach those perfect worlds but for now we deal in messy compromises. Irish abortion law deals in absolutes.

And this is not admirable, but hypocritical. You only need to walk through Shaftesbury Square on a Friday night or any Irish town to see how the sexual revolution swept this island as readily as it did anywhere else in the West.

Accompanying that revolution was a consensus that a woman had control over unwanted pregnancies early in the pregnancy.

Standing out entirely against this consensus has not saved much foetal life in Ireland. It has led to many women making a harrowing and lonely journey to England for a later term abortion.

And it led this week to the prosecution of a girl for a home-made abortion.

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