'We're talking about women's lives'
Northern Ireland is the only place in the UK where abortion is illegal - but that could be about to change. Mary O'Hara reports Mary O'Hara Friday October 17 2008 The Guardian
Four years ago Annie Smith (not her real name) walked into her GP's surgery and pleaded for help.
"I'd been sick for ages, my blood pressure was through the roof and I was worried that something was seriously wrong," she says. "The last thing I expected was to be told I was 12 weeks pregnant. I was still having periods."
As a single mother on benefits, suffering with depression and chronic health problems, Smith realised she could not cope with being pregnant. After a few "very difficult days" she decided to have an abortion. "I just knew it was the right thing to do. I had to think of my two children. What use am I to them even more sick, or dead?"
What Smith had not realised was just how difficult it would be to get an abortion - she lives in Northern Ireland where the procedure is illegal in almost all circumstances. A friend helped her scrape together the cash to go to England for a termination, and the pair kept it a secret because, she says, "It's just not something you could tell people about where I live.
"If it had not been for my friend, I don't know what I would have done. I had absolutely no money. I was living on benefits. The whole thing was so distressing. I couldn't eat. I couldn't sleep. If we had the same rights here as the rest of the UK, I could have had my abortion without all that additional stress. It just doesn't make sense to me."
Smith's experience stemmed from the fact that the UK's 1967 Abortion Act was passed when Northern Ireland had its own parliament - and even after direct rule was imposed in the early 1970s the law was never extended. Now that could be about to change. Next week an amendment to the embryology and human fertilisation bill, tabled by Labour MP Diane Abbott, is due to be debated in parliament; if passed, it will extend abortion rights to Northern Ireland. This challenge to the current law has triggered outrage from anti-abortion campaigners, not to mention Northern Ireland's mainstream parties - on both sides of the political divide.
Anti-abortion campaigners have been mobilising all summer, holding public town hall-style meetings and gearing up for a "Rally for Life" scheduled for tomorrow at Stormont. The leading pro-life group, Precious Life, also launched a prominent poster and bus advertising campaign a week ago to drum up support.
On the other side of the debate, pro-choice groups are also taking their case to politicians, launching a petition on the Downing Street website and holding regular public meetings. In the summer, the FPA (formerly the Family Planning Association) launched its latest campaign for women's right to choose, and it notes that more than 50,000 women have had to leave Northern Ireland in search of abortions in the past 40 years - many in the later stages of pregnancies because of delays caused by financial hardship. In 2007 alone, it estimates, around 1,400 women fled, paying up to £2,500 each for clinic and travel costs. Audrey Simpson, director of the FPA in Northern Ireland, says the situation amounts to "discrimination" against women, particularly poorer women such as Smith.
Goretti Horgan of the pro-choice group Alliance for Choice agrees, and says that some women are so desperate they are buying abortion pills on the internet. She adds that, according to one survey of GPs in Northern Ireland, 11% "have seen the results of amateur abortions".
There are very few political figures in Northern Ireland who are openly in favour of the extension of the 1967 Act - the Democratic Unionist Party, Sinn Fein, the SDLP and the Ulster Unionist Party are all against it - but Dawn Purvis, leader of the Progressive Unionist Party, says it is about time people such as Smith were heard. As an outspoken pro-choice advocate, Purvis says she comes across "all kinds of women" who have to leave the country for a termination.
"There was the 17-year-old girl who was just about to start her A-levels when she found out she was pregnant. Her boyfriend had left her. The pregnancy was enormously difficult for her and she just couldn't go through with it. There was a woman who had grown-up children - she thought she had been through the menopause, and was feeling suicidal at the prospect of having more children. There was another woman who found herself pregnant but by the time she raised the money to go to England to have an abortion she was over the [legal] limit.
This is women's lives we are talking about. That women in Northern Ireland are treated differently from women in Bradford or Birmingham or London is a national disgrace."
So why has the Abortion Act never been extended to Northern Ireland? Liam Gibson of the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child - an anti-abortion group established in 1967 specifically to challenge the Abortion Act - says that it has never been applied "because the people of Northern Ireland simply don't want it". He argues that people in the rest of the UK and pro-choice campaigners "just don't understand" Northern Ireland and the fact that it is "more socially conservative", and he objects to any suggestion that the law should be extended, saying, "It's a matter for the assembly, not Westminster."
Purvis agrees with Gibson that to some degree Northern Ireland has always been a more conservative society, but says he and the mainstream politicians are "spectacularly out of touch" with the reality of people's lives today. She feels that the louder anti-abortion voices "drown out" those of more moderate women and men who support the right to choose. "We are criminalising women and we have a situation where people are fearful of talking openly about abortion, never mind admitting to having one."
Abbott has been accused of trying to impose abortion on Northern Ireland against the express wishes of the assembly - an accusation she rejects. For her, the issue is simply about women's rights, and enabling women to have a voice. "This is an issue that dare not speak its name in Northern Ireland," she says.
There have been controversial suggestions - widely denied - of some kind of deal between the government and the Democratic Unionists (DUP) to prevent the Abortion Act being extended. It is difficult to see how this might happen if a vote does take place, since MPs are granted a free vote on the issue in parliament. But after the nine DUP MPs voted in favour of the 42-day detention of terror suspects earlier this year - helping the government to win the vote in the Commons - questions were asked about what the "trade-off" was. Some pro-choice campaigners, including Horgan, suggest a "soft whip" is being applied to MPs on the basis that if they vote for the amendment it could threaten the peace process.
Jeffrey Donaldson, an MP and member of the legislative assembly (MLA) for the DUP, and head of the all-party Pro-Life Group in the assembly, denies any kind of deal has been struck but says he has anecdotal evidence that many MPs would consider voting against the amendment if it would destabilise the peace process. If the amendment were carried, Donaldson says, there "would definitely be a constitutional upset" because Northern Ireland MLAs believe it is a decision that should rest with the assembly and not Westminster. The assembly could, he says, "refuse to implement" the extension of the act even if MPs in Westminster voted in favour.
What happens next - and whether a constitutional crisis would indeed ensue - hinges first on whether the speaker calls the amendment for a vote, and, ultimately, on whether the pro-choice majority in the Commons votes in favour. Les Reid of the Belfast Humanist Association, another pro-choice advocate, believes that for all the threats of constitutional crisis, the anti-abortion lobby's protestations may come to nothing in the long term. "The DUP and the Catholic church warned that gay rights would never be accepted in Northern Ireland, but time has proved them wrong," he says. "Likewise, if the abortion laws are extended, all that will happen is that, eventually, women who have been forced to find access [elsewhere] will be able to get treatment they need."
For Smith, an extension in the law can't come a moment too soon. "I understand that many people do not agree with abortion," she says. "That is their right and I respect it. But I don't see why they should be able to impose their views on me or any other woman. It's a disgrace that I had to go through what I did."
Copyright Guardian Newspapers Limited 2008