Just over two years ago, Savita Halappanavar died in Galway after being refused an abortion. Since then several cases both North and South have caused further public outrage. Under pressure, Minister David Ford has launched a consultation around possible changes to the relevant criminal law. This consultation is restricted to cases of lethal foetal abnormality and sexual crime. While changes in these cases to allow women access to abortions are welcome, it doesn’t go far enough.
Currently, it is only legal to carry out an abortion in Northern Ireland if the life of the woman is in danger or if there is the danger of serious and long-term or permanent damage to the woman’s mental of physical health. These are very restricted circumstances and it is not surprising that the number of terminations carried out in Northern Ireland are very small. 51 terminations were carried out here in 2012/13. This compares to at least 1,000 women a year who travel to England and Wales to access abortions. Like everywhere, abortion is a fact of life in Northern Ireland and figures show that women of all ages make the difficult choice of ending a pregnancy.
The Department of Justice consultation seeks to bring forward legislation that would enable pregnant women in cases of lethal foetal abnormality to decide to terminate a pregnancy and to have this procedure done in Northern Ireland. This would undoubtedly lessen the burden women in such circumstance have to bear and would be a positive development.
When it comes to whether abortion should be an option when a pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, the consultation paper correctly identifies a number of issues that arise which makes it difficult to find a legal framework. These include whether a police report of a sexual crime would be a requirement for accessing abortion services. However, the Department doesn’t draw the necessary conclusions from this: we should legislate to allow women to choose whether to have an abortion regardless of the circumstances that led to the pregnancy. Unfortunately, all the parties in the Executive don’t agree with this approach.
Extend the 1967 Abortion Act
The 1967 Abortion Act, which is the law in England, Scotland and Wales, allows for termination of a pregnancy up to 24 weeks gestation if there is a greater risk to the physical or mental health of the women by continuing with the pregnancy. Therefore rape and other circumstance can be incorporated. It is also important to note that the vast majority of abortions (at least 70% between 2010 and 2013) carried out in England or Wales for women who gave addresses in Northern Ireland happen between 3-9 weeks gestation.
Any improvement in access to safe and legal abortions in Northern Ireland must be welcomed. However, it is clear that the current debate isn’t going far enough. Until women here can choose what happens to their own bodies, we will continue to be treated as vessels. The immediate step required is for the Assembly to extend the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland and allow access to free, legal and safe abortion under the NHS. But we also need to fight for the full rights to choose which has to incorporate access to abortions and contraception as well as real sex education and economic security so women can have children if they choose to.