Deceptive Hysteria Surrounds Abortion Debate in Northern Ireland

In my opinion, there is a serious lack of education coupled with a deliberate propagation of misinformation in the political and public sphere when it comes to women's reproductive rights in Northern Ireland.

Earlier this week, news here in Northern Ireland was dominated by a highly emotive discussion surrounding abortion and a women's right to choice. Attempts were made by some politicians in the devolved legislative assembly to add an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill which would have banned abortions being accessible through private clinics such as the controversial, recently opened Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast.

Fortunately, this underhanded attempt to circumvent the usually robust public consultation and review process for such an amendment resulted in a failure to win sufficient cross-community support. Throughout the heated, often wayward debate in the Assembly chamber not once did any MLA refer to the NHS guidelines on abortion when trying to shift responsibility for regulation from the DUP controlled health ministry to the Alliance Party controlled Justice Ministry.

Worryingly the majority of speakers also referred to women in Northern Irelands as "our women" which in my book suggests that some MLAs view women as belonging to them.

Alliance Party Justice Spokesperson, Stewart Dickson criticised the amendment as "inappropriate" and that it had been "tagged onto the back of the Criminal Justice Bill" which he believed was "bad legislation that would surely have been challenged in the courts if it was passed".

The amendment itself, proposed by Paul Givan (DUP) and Alban Maginness (SDLP) to the Criminal Justice Bill should not be taken at face value. In reality this was not about the rights or wrongs of abortion (whatever a person's view may be) but rather about restricting the ability of a woman to elect where she can and cannot avail of basic medical services.

"On such a sensitive issue, there is a clear need for a proper and considered consultation process, which this amendment was not subject to. Indeed, in the few short weeks since this amendment has appeared, the strength of feeling, the lobbying, the hundreds of interviews, conversations, blogs, articles and debates have demonstrated the absolute necessity for formal consultation to take place so that all voices can be heard and all opinions expressed in a structured and meaningful way." - Stewart Dickson MLA.

In my opinion, there is a serious lack of education coupled with a deliberate propagation of misinformation in the political and public sphere when it comes to women's reproductive rights in Northern Ireland. This is evident when one reviews how easily hysteria can be whipped up by individuals who prefer the use of elaborate deception to put across anti-choice theological values and position.

I don't wish to rehash some of the issues surrounding abortion in Northern Ireland but the key problems arise from the fact the 1967 Abortion Act which covers England, Scotland and Wales does not extend to Northern Ireland.

Women remain at the mercy of a crudely interpreted concoction of legislation from 1861, 1929 and 1945 respectively. This means that although abortion is technically legal in Northern Ireland, it is only in cases where a woman's life is in immediate danger or when there is a risk of long term damage to physical or mental health that there will be approval. Truth is, in practice the procedure is virtually impossible to obtain, even in cases of rape or incest.

Let me be clear about the impact this is having on women in Northern Ireland - due to the current legislation, thousands of vulnerable women are forced to fly over to mainland UK in order to have access to the most basic healthcare and professional welfare advice that they cannot access on the NHS within Northern Ireland itself.

As was recently debated in a live chat on the Guardian, permissive laws don't necessarily provide practical access to abortion.

This reality is that there is an affront to the basic right of women in relation to having control over their own bodies and it also creates a situation where just recently over 100 women risked imprisonment after admitting to having taken abortion-inducing pills.

In terms of my own position, I believe that no-one wants to find themselves in a position in which they are contemplating having to medically terminate a pregnancy. I would hope that everyone can agree that through better sexual education in schools and easier access to contraception the number of people facing decisions such as having an abortion can, and should, be reduced.

However, the fact is that unplanned pregnancies do happen, and given that reality, it is inescapable that a choice must be made. That most intimate of choices about a woman's body can either be made by the government, or the woman in question.

Here in Northern Ireland the government currently dictate what a woman can and cannot control about her own body and I believe the government is entirely wrong in its approach. The Northern Ireland Assembly should never be able to tell any citizen what to do with their body. I also trust women to make emotionally difficult and morally complex choices for themselves without misogynistic interference by men who wish to control the lives and choices of women.

MLAs have a responsibility to the people, to ensure equality for all and proper access to professional healthcare, advice and welfare those citizens and residents of the United Kingdom that should be entitled under the NHS.

Another unfortunate dimension to the discourse surrounding abortion in Northern Ireland that I simply have to mention is the existence of various exceptionally vocal 'Pro-Life' groups. We also have a junior Minister in the Northern Ireland Assembly who compared abortion levels to the Holocaust.

To use just one other example, Bernadette Smyth from the Precious Life organisation I would have to openly state how frightened I am for the sanity of some individuals in Northern Ireland.

Here we have an individual who, after years of active 'pro-life' campaigning remains reliant on the use of emotionally charged rhetoric to deliver her theological position on abortion - and that is just it, the problem in Northern Ireland is that theology and religion have crept into every level of government and influence a great swathe of policy development and political alignment.

Whilst I was at the Northern Ireland Assembly to hear the debate on the CJB as it occurred, Bernadette Smyth was also present and quite aggressively harassing politicians with boxes filled with 'pro-life' petitions. When I approached her to politely put across a differing perspective she accused me of being "proud of killing babies".

Later in the week she took part in a live web chat with the Belfast Newsletter where questions I posed got through to her for answers.

I was admittedly shocked and disturbed by some of her responses, in particular her claim that the graphic images used by pro-life campaigners "do not offend women who have had miscarriages".

Well, speaking to a colleague of mine who has had 14 pregnancies, 13 of which ended in miscarriage I was told that the use of graphic images is truly horrific. Also having been a bereavement councillor for the miscarriage association, my colleague confirmed that for some women seeing such images further deepens feelings of depression, grief and despair.

My only conclusion is that the offensive, discriminatory and abhorrent use of emotive imagery to raise awareness of pro-life or any other argument is fundamentally wrong and designed to take us into an area of debate that will further traumatise vulnerable women.

The fanaticism coupled with religious fundamentalism displayed by some 'Pro-Life' groups should cause many of us massive concerns. Our government should not be unduly influenced by any Church or religious institution on matters of Health, welfare and women's rights.

As a male feminist I wholeheartedly commit myself to ensuring women have the right to choice here in Northern Ireland at the earliest possible moment in the near future.

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