Minister for Justice David Ford has called a public enquiry into possible changes to the laws governing abortions in Northern Ireland. This is a belated and only partial recognition that the law and politicians are lagging behind public opinion on this issue. Further changes are necessary to bring women’s rights here in line with those in Britain.
The outcry that followed Savita Halappanavar’s tragic death in the South and two cases last year where women had to travel to Britain to access abortion services has resulted in Ford’s announcement. But any loosening of the very strict legal parameters for abortions here will only be for cases of fatal foetal abnormalities, rape and incest.
In the North, abortions are legal only in situations where the life of the woman is in danger, or where there is a “real and substantial” as well as “permanent or long-term” threat to her health. As a result, over 1,000 women a year travel to Britain to have an abortion.
Public opinion on this issue is shifting and there is growing support for a liberalisation of abortion legislation. Polls have shown a two-third majority in favour of abortion rights in cases of rape and incest. A recent poll for the Belfast Telegraph also showed 25.9% in favour of the statement “Abortion should be available to any woman who chooses it after being counselled on alternatives.” This would actually be broader than the 1967 Act. However, the DUP, Sinn Fein and the SDLP wasted no time in reiterating that they are opposed to extending the 1967 Act after the consultation was announced.
Pro-choice campaigners can use the consultation to highlight the reality of abortion laws here and to call for the immediate extension of the 1967 Act as a first step towards the right of a woman to choose what happens to her body. Linked to this we also demand full support for pregnant women as well as real sex education and access to contraception. Furthermore, we must also fight for free childcare and support for single parents and families.