In a recent 2016 Assembly election debate on UTV the leaders of the five main political parties in Northern Ireland were all asked about their response to the conviction and suspended sentence that was handed down to an unnamed young woman who had procured pills to induce an abortion - I'll come to that in a second but here's a bit of backstory for you. I like to get you all caught up before I delve into a serious rant.
Despite the fact that abortion is completely legal in mainland Britain, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands, the 1861 Offences Against The Person Act is the law of the land in Northern Ireland in matters concerning terminations of pregnancies. It is a criminal act in Northern Ireland in 2016 to procure an abortion or assist someone in obtaining an abortion - the only other option is to travel to the mainland to have the procedure which isn't free (unless you're a resident of England, Scotland or Wales) but it is safe, and it is legal. It is not a crime for Northern Irish women to access abortion procedures in other jurisdictions.
Earlier in 2016 a young woman was reported to the PSNI for inducing an abortion through abortifacient pills that she had requested online. She was subsequently convicted and given a suspended three month prison sentence. The issue, of course, has generated much debate which has become a key issue in the lead up to the 2016 NI Assembly elections with all parties and almost all candidates declaring which side of the debate they are on (Courtesy of Belfast Feminist Network). Arguably these positions should have been clarified long, long before devolution even became a reality but we are where we are.
In responding to the question on whether or not the young woman in question should have been criminalised for her actions both the Arlene Foster and Colum Eastwood claimed that as a society we should "wrap our arms" around young women in a crisis - so why then did they sink any attempt to amend the existing laws when the opportunity presented itself during the amendments to the Justice Bill? In fact Sarah Ewart, who has long campaigned for reform in Northern Ireland to allow for terminations in cases of Fatal Feotal Abnormality, challenged the SDLP leader during a phone-in session yesterday on BBC Talkback to express how disappointed she was that the law has remained the same.
We cannot hope for our judges to show leniency and compassion if and when another person is brought to a courtroom for taking matters into their own hands with respect to an unwanted pregnancy. Personally expressing your concern and hoping for compassion whilst stopping short of changing the law to prevent those situations even occurring when you have been in a position to do so is bare faced electoral opportunism. It's cowardice and it does not help the almost one thousand women who had to travel to Great Britain to access abortion care. Women have been pushed to the brink by having to self-medicate for a healthcare issue and face a criminal record for doing so.
The current law as it stands is unfit for purpose and both the SDLP and DUP's leaders can gush their hearts out until they are blue in the face on TV when asked about criminalising of abortion but the fact of the matter is that we are in a situation where we could potentially have a woman be handed a life sentence for procuring and using abortion pills. The current law allows for such and the SDLP, DUP and even the Alliance Party, Sinn Fein and UUP have fallen way short of providing the type of legislative leadership that is needed.
Simply leaving the matter down to the individual conscience of elected reps or only pushing for abortion in certain circumstances falls short of that leadership. The main parties have all voiced their opposition to the extension to Northern Ireland of the 1967 Abortion Act (which regulates the issue in Wales, Scotland and England) when asked about reforming the current laws here however that is a clever side-stepping of the issue. With a Conservative majority Government in Westminster which may rely on the support of SDLP, DUP and pro-life UUP MPs to see off backbench rebellions there is next to no chance that the Secretary for State will move unilaterally on the matter; to do so would call into question the legitimacy of devolved powers on such issues at a time when David Cameron is keen to be seen to respect the devolved institutions. What Northern Ireland needs is for our MLAs to legislate for the matter in the Assembly and do the right thing and worry about the frankly irrelevant electoral impact in 2019.
I suspect the issue will dent the SDLP more than the DUP in their stronger areas such as South and North Belfast - especially amongst younger voters. This was an opportunity for Colum Eastwood to outflank Alliance and the UUP but it looks like more of the same, unfortunately.
Doing the right thing and doing the popular thing are seldom the same however the matter of abortion has saturated the airwaves and become a key battleground for political parties in Northern Ireland. Public opinion is only just starting to catch up with the rest of the UK - forty nine years later. Surely the onus is on our political leaders to agree that it is better for women to have safe, free and legal access to medical care rather than hope for the best by consulting Google and procuring tablets on the internet? I fear that we will have to confront the reality of someone being handed down a custodial sentence for accessing or assisting access to an abortive medications before anything will be done.