Abortion politics in Northern Ireland: breaking the political divide?By Jennifer Thomson on 10 September 2013
After a summer of renewed violence in Northern Ireland, you would be forgiven for thinking that there was little to unite citizens and politicians alike across the Nationalist-Unionist divide. Turning away from the more conventional issues which tend to dominate this fraught political landscape, there is one thing that Nationalist and Unionist politicians alike can agree on - continued restrictions on the provision of abortion services in the province.
Abortion has a very particular history in Northern Ireland, distinct from both that of the Republic and Great Britain. Abortion was first addressed in legislation in Great Britain and Ireland in the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act. This made any attempt to procure a miscarriage, or supply of drugs or other material aid to procure a miscarriage, punishable by life imprisonment. In 1937 a prominent London surgeon, Alec Bourne, openly performed an abortion on a 14 year old girl. Until the 1967 Abortion Act, R vs. Bourne was the only addition to abortion legislation, and still largely forms the basis of what constitutes a legal abortion in Northern Ireland today. It states that “If the doctor is of the opinion, on reasonable grounds and with adequate knowledge that the probable consequences of the continuance of the pregnancy will be to make the woman a physical or mental wreck” then an abortion is legal. The vague nature of this judgement however – the belief that a pregnancy continued will result in the woman becoming “a physical or mental wreck” – resulted in a wide variation in implementation.
It was in light of this vague verdict that there was growing pressure for more transparent legislation. The result of a Private Member’s Bill by Sir David Steel, the 1967 Abortion Act allowed for abortion at up to 28 weeks with the permission of two doctors, The 1967 Act continues to form the legal basis upon which women access terminations today in Scotland, England and Wales.The Act was, however, never extended to Northern Ireland, largely because the province was at that point still governed by the Northern Irish parliament at Stormont. This means that the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act and the 1937 Bourne judgement still form the basis of what constitutes a legal abortion in Northern Ireland today.
Attempts were made in 2008 to extend the law to Northern Ireland during the passage of amendments to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act as it moved through Westminster. Labour MP Diane Abbott publicly fronted the campaign, and she remains one of the few MPs to be outspoken in her support for the extension. The proposed amendment was quietly pushed down the running order within parliament, largely due to the fact that Northern Irish MPs from the Democratic Unionist Party (the DUP) agreed to vote for the Labour government’s proposed 42 day terror suspect detention limit in exchange for a promise that Labour would not attempt to extend the 1967 Act to Northern Ireland. 2010 saw further justice and policing powers devolved to the province, as a result of which change to abortion legislation can now only come from the devolved parliament at Stormont. This leaves a situation where thousands of women are forced to travel to mainland Britain every year for abortions. The vague legal situation (in which, in accordance with the Bourne judgement, abortion may only be legally performed when “the continuance of the pregnancy will be to make the woman a physical or mental wreck”), in the province means that doctors are often unsure how to act or afraid of repercussions.
Recent events in Ireland, North and South (the opening of a Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast, and the death of SavitaHalappanavar after being denied a termination in a Galway hospital, both late 2012) has returned to issue to the political agenda. The Republic passed legislation this summer which allows for terminations in very specific medical circumstances. In March, Stormont saw attempts by a cross community groups of MLAs, from the DUP and the SDLP, to pass legislation which would have made any termination undertaken outside of an NHS facility illegal, thus effectively outlawing Marie Stopes’ activities in the province. MLAs in support of the motion were keen to stress the supposed cross-community support it garnered, with the strangeness of a DUP-SDLP alliance being made even stranger upon hearing Paul Givan’s appeal that “Across the island of Ireland, we share a common bond in seeking to protect and provide the best care for mothers and unborn children.”
Why has this particular issue managed to garner cross-communal support in Northern Ireland? In part, at least, because of the emotive way in which the issue is discussed. Even recent guidelines produced by the Department of Health refer to the foetus as the “unborn child”, even though this follows no British or Irish legal precedent. References to religious morality in Stormont debates on abortion abound. Recent sociological work on Northern Ireland suggests growing evangelicalism and born-again identification in the province, most especially within the Protestant communities. Dissatisfaction with the state of Unionist politics, from the Good Friday Agreement on, has seen this community turn from political issues to what are deemed more social concerns, such as abortion.
The issue of abortion suggests, in one sense, a hopeful vision of parties working across the communal divide on key issues. It is worrying however, most especially in the sense of women’s and secular intereststhat this partnership appears to be coming at the expense of a movement towards greater religiously based, socio-conservative forces. Restrictions on the practice of abortion in Northern Ireland look set to stay.
Jennifer Thomson is an ESRC funded Doctoral student in the School of Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary, University of London. Her research focuses on abortion legislation in contemporary Northern Ireland, and comparisons with this to current mainland UK reproductive rights policy. She holds an MA in Political Science from the New School for Social Research, New York