Thursday, October 23, 2008

Guardian: Over the Sea and Unheard

Over the sea and unheard

Northern Irish politicians agree on one thing: abortion is evil. The ban sends thousands of women abroad every year

Fionola Meredith, Monday October 20 2008

October 24, 11.55am: So Ulster said no, and Ulster got its way. For all Harriet Harman's spurious-sounding excuses about protecting Britain's liberal abortion laws from the dangerous machinations of the Lords, her reported decision to block the Commons votes that could have over-turned the Northern Ireland abortion ban looks very much like capitulation to the obstreperous Stormont boys' club. Northern Ireland politicians have used all their usual tactics of loud whining, immature grandstanding and – most effective of all – dark threats about imminent constitutional crises to get their own way. With the power-sharing executive at Stormont on the brink, they knew they held the trump card. There's nothing this intensely inward-looking band of brothers likes better than seeing off perceived Westminster interference, keeping the good old Ulster homestead pure and holy. So well done, lads, another grubby victory for your own special brand of moral probity. Meanwhile, desperate, cash-strapped Northern women with unwanted pregnancies will keep on taking their problems across the water, where you don't have to see them.

October 23, 10am: For years, I've avoided driving my young daughter home from school along Belfast's University Avenue. I didn't want her to see the images of aborted foetuses festooning the lamp-posts, placed there by anti-abortion campaigners holding their regular "prayer vigil" outside the city's FPA (formerly known as Family Planning Association) offices. Wisely, the FPA has recently decamped to more secure, upper-floor premises elsewhere in Belfast, where teenage girls no longer have to run the gauntlet of this wild-eyed, sin-haunted crew in order to access free, independent advice on an unwanted pregnancy.

Abortion is effectively illegal in Northern Ireland, and any time there's an attempt made to change that discriminatory state of affairs, the place goes nuclear. So, no surprises that when it emerged that pro-choice Labour MPs were planning to back an amendment to the Embryology Bill that would allow terminations in Northern Ireland, the same old chorus of hysteria about "babykillers" started up again, complete with – worst of all – outpourings of vicious misogyny.

Once again, though, the issue has been kicked into the middle distance: the MPs are reportedly backing down, after being warned that the move could prompt local politicians to walk away from negotiations aimed at shoring up the tottering Stormont executive. Ironically, resistance to abortion rights is the one thing our warring representatives can actually agree on. Locked in a bitter, acrimonious and increasingly destructive struggle over the devolution of policing and justice powers, it's all sunshine and roses between them when it comes to this basic human right – and the message is, you ain't getting it, ladies. Shuffle off to England, get the abortion done secretly, come back and we'll say no more about it.

Thousands of women make this costly, agonisingly difficult journey every year – many in the later stages of pregnancy because of delays caused by financial hardship. Others, perhaps unable to afford the trip, are turning to risky abortion pills bought on the internet. And a recent survey (pdf) of GPs in Northern Ireland found that 11% "have seen the results of amateur abortions". Yet our politicians continue to complacently inform us that there is no demand for abortion in Northern Ireland.

A nasty combination of strident fundamentalism, paternalistic indifference to women's rights and our politicians' bone-headed obsession with constitutional issues to the exclusion of all else mean that the Irish Sea ferries will continue to get good business from desperate Northern Irish women for quite some time to come. Meanwhile, any attempt at more measured, rational debate about the issue gets drowned out by shrieking zealots, determined – in classic Ulster style – to reduce all discourse to one simplistic polar opposition: in this case, baby-killers versus baby-lovers.

The thing is, we got what we wanted – our own little white parliament up on the hill, sworn enemies sharing power, misty-eyed dreams of a bright new future. But we're paying one hell of a price for devolution.

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