Abortion in Northern Ireland

Marie-Claire Bradley, a Bristol-based medical student from Northern Ireland, discusses the ongoing issue of abortion in response to debate heard at the BMA’s Annual Representative Meeting 2019, subsequent court cases and imminent legislative change.

In June this year, I listened to discussion on the above motion at BMA ARM 2019 in Belfast for the pictured motion which clarifies and sets out a framework for the implementation of BMA’s 2016 policy that abortion should be treated in line with other forms of healthcare and decriminalized across UK and Northern Ireland and policy from 1984, 1985 and 2003 which specifically supports the reform of law in Northern Ireland. The air hung thick, humidity emanating from hot palms and from under stiff collared necks.

Since then, a number of momentous legal shifts towards the fulfilment of this motion have been achieved. In July, a majority of MPs backed the bill brought by MP for Walthamstow, Stella Creasy to repeal Sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 – which make abortion a criminal offence in Northern Ireland. As a result, the law governing abortion in Northern Ireland, the Offences Against the Person Act 186, is due to change three days from the time of writing (on 21st October), if the devolved assembly does not re-convene before then. Interim rules currently govern the care of those seeking abortions in the meantime – these rules allow doctors to finally at least allude to the possibility of treatment in England without fear of legal reprisal. (1)

On 3rd October 2019, Sarah Ewart, (who was denied abortion despite scans definitively showing that the foetus was in viable) brought her case before the High Court in Belfast. The court considered the archaic wording of the 1861 Act – a near-blanket ban on abortion, except in cases where continuing the pregnancy would cause ‘physical and mental wreak’, as highlighted by Dr Kerr- speaker for the motion and member of Medical Students for Choice- at ARM. The court ruled that such a ban breaches the UK’s human rights commitments.

Abortion will remain a criminal offence in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, although, Northern Ireland is the only place where women and pregnant people face lifetime imprisonment for terminating a pregnancy, even in cases of rape, incest and foetal abnormality, and doctors and medical professionals also face life imprisonment for assisting. The potential for such a win for human rights in Northern Ireland is, joyously, a result of local political stalemate and governmental disregard for the region.

This departure from current archaic rules to better represent the will and the needs of Northern Irish people is particularly welcome in a time of such paralysing political uncertainty – The writer notes that the Act came into force 20 years before it was legally possible for women to own property. (2) At ARM in Belfast, Dr Kerr explained the influence that the criminalisation of abortion has had upon medical education – while the procedure affects 1 in 3 women and pregnant people, education on the subject across the UK is poor and medical students in Northern Ireland receive “little to no” training in this regard. Dr Kerr commented that the unavailability of the procedure leads to “forced pregnancy” which is “an act of violence and assault” and indeed, as Dr John Chisholm, Ethics Committee Chair, later mentioned, the UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women Committee condemned the law on abortion in Northern Ireland as a “grave violation of rights under the Convention”. Dr Chisholm, also echoed the words of the proposer of the motion, Dr Anthony Lempert and Dr Noel Sharkey, speaking for the motion, in stipulating, “human rights are not a devolved issue”.

There was a common preoccupation amongst speakers against the motion who feared that any such legislative overreach may impact upon the peace in Northern Ireland:-

Speaking against, Dr Dominic Whitehouse opened with the phrase, “peace is precious and fragile” and subsequently brought to the attention of ARM; the lack of an active assembly at Stormont for two years, the murder of “female journalist reporting on riots in Creggan area of Derry” and “letter bombs being delivered by dissident republicans to London airports and Waterloo station” as evidence that peace in Northern Ireland is once again dwindling and implying that the enactment of the legislative changes laid out in the motion would amount to a return to “colonial rule” and thereby threaten the peace.

The unnamed “female journalist” to whom Dr Whitehouse refers is Lyra McKee, her tragic and untimely death highlighted the pertinence of her investigative work unpicking the stories of young people left behind by the Peace Process. Lyra McKee actively campaigned for LGBTQ+ rights, was pro-choice and in favour of the decriminalisation of abortion.

Dr Rachael Pickering, also speaking against the motion, emphasised that being “from Shropshire” meant that the legislative change suggested was “imperialist”. Dr Pickering told ARM that Northern Ireland is “politically conservative”. In fact, the writer notes that the fifth Northern Ireland Peace Monitoring Report, funded by the Joseph Rowntree Trust, lists the necessity of “reform of abortion law and equal marriage” alongside the potential impact of Brexit as issues that need to be solved in order to further secure peace in Northern Ireland, citing evidence from the Northern Ireland Life and Times survey and opinion polls which show that “the majority of the population in NI support liberalizing the law on these issues”. The odd notion that the backdrop of political instability in Northern Ireland which was originally caused by Direct Rule should be an excuse for further denial of human rights in Northern Ireland is somewhat absurd.

Dr Pickering, an English Representative, was correct in saying that English Representatives probably shouldn’t dictate the consensus of Northern Irish people. The fifth Northern Ireland Peace Monitoring Report notes that the views of socially conservative political parties in Northern Ireland “are at odds with” the view of Northern Irish people. (3) Indeed, as Dr Lempert notes, 59% of people in Northern Ireland have voted in favour of decriminalisation. The consensus of Northern Irish people is for the motion.

The voice of this much needed Northern Irish perspective, came when Dr Noel Sharkey spoke in favour for the motion stressing the need for legislative change to ensure that Northern Irish people have the same human rights as people in the rest of the UK, emphatically stating that, “As a gay man I cannot marry my partner.” He explained that the lack of devolved government was not a reason to stall reform of legislation as the underlying health issues are “becoming more toxic and dangerous” as a result. Closing the debate, he powerfully stated that, the “Criminal framework is not preventative, it simply exports the problem […] it is time to trust women. Human rights is not a devolved issue. Instead of giving women in Northern Ireland air-fares, it is time to give them healthcare.”

Threatening uncertainty surrounding the border in Ireland casts a heavy shadow over economic well-being and the maintenance of the hard-won peace in the region and the right to choose hangs in the balance until Monday when Secretary of State, Julian Smith, will be forced to legalise abortion and same-sex marriage before 13 January 2020. Smith’s video tweet on 14th October urged the devolved executive to sit and discuss the law on abortion before the 21st October deadline immediately followed sit down talks between the DUP and Cabinet. Accusations ensued from MP Stella Creasy that the right to abortion is being used as a “bargaining chip” by the Government in the scramble to bend the DUP over to accept their Brexit deal. Indeed, the next day a subsequent statement from the DUP called for Stormont to sit once again to “oppose the extreme liberalisation” of the law.

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