Friday, October 31, 2008

Northern Ireland Women Keep Abortions Secret

Northern Ireland women keep abortions secret

Bridget has a secret shared by tens of thousands of women in Northern Ireland: She travelled to England for an abortion that would be illegal here.

"I couldn't tell my parents. I couldn't risk telling my co-workers. I told them all I was going to a friend's wedding. I had to act all happy-clappy when I came home." said Bridget, 25, sipping a cup of tea as she recalled her lonely trip four years ago to a Liverpool clinic.

Bridget works in a central Belfast bank. She spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because, if her secret came out, she would expect hostility from her Roman Catholic family and religiously strict workmates, Protestant and Catholic alike.

"I wish I could talk about it to my mother. I'd tell my sister, but she'd only tell Ma." she said with a sad laugh and a shake of her head. "Abortion has to be this dirty wee secret you carry inside you. You get on a plane or a boat, and live a lie."

Northern Ireland's position is peculiar because it is part of a country, the United Kingdom, that was among the world's first to legalize abortion back in 1967. But the law has been blocked here. So, each year, an estimated 1,400 to 2,000 Northern Ireland residents travel across the Irish Sea to terminate their pregnancies.

Advocates of extending abortion rights to Northern Ireland argue that the prohibition here doesn't stop abortions. It just makes young women pay hundreds or thousands of dollars for a procedure that, throughout Britain, is free through the United Kingdom's state-funded health service. But the latest attempt to bring Belfast in line with Britain, a cross-party amendment championed by a handful of English legislators in London, has not even been discussed.

Such manoeuvres reflect the unusual reality that, when it comes to abortion, the British Protestant and Irish Catholic politicians of Northern Ireland see eye to eye. Just two of the 108 politicians in the Northern Ireland Assembly spoke out in favour of the English legislators' effort.

By contrast the leaders of all four parties in Northern Ireland's power-sharing administration, a dysfunctional coalition divided on many issues, shared platforms to reject the proposed amendment. They backed an anti-abortion petition drive that delivered 120,000 signatures in October to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's London office.

"Northern Ireland clearly has a pro-life majority. It's an issue that uniquely crosses the political divide here. Whether you're Catholic or Protestant doesn't matter when it comes to imposing the death penalty on innocent, unborn children." said Bernie Smyth, leader of Precious Life, a cross-community pressure group that was formed 11 years ago to keep abortion out of Northern Ireland. Smyth recently led an anti-abortion picket outside Parliament in London.

Back in Belfast, Precious Life activists mounted their usual weekday protest outside the office of the UK's Family Planning Association, the major centre for women facing unwanted pregnancies in Northern Ireland. A lone middle-aged woman handed out leaflets depicting a fetus torn to pieces.

Audrey Simpson, the Belfast centre's director, said the Precious Life activists posed a chronic irritant for her pregnant visitors who, in many cases, were already afraid of being identified as abortion-seekers.

She said the anti-abortion activists ``harass any woman, if they appear young or at a fertile age', even though most women are visiting other offices in the multi-agency building. "They'll try to give you literature and appeal to you, 'Don't murder your baby,' and they might even follow you all the way back to your car, shouting you're going to hell."

Simpson said about 600 pregnant women seek counselling from her office annually, and more than half opt for abortions in England.

Even though the Northern Ireland visitors are British taxpayers, they cannot use the state-funded health insurance and so must pay anything from $1,000 to $3,300. Increasingly, she said, women also were flying to the lower-cost alternative of the Netherlands or buying abortion-inducing pills off the Internet.

She noted that women travelled to her office from the neighbouring Republic of Ireland, where abortion also is illegal, because they were afraid of being seen by friends going into one of Dublin's own crisis-pregnancy counselling centres.

But she described Northern Ireland as much more socially rigid than the predominantly Catholic south.

"In normal societies you would at least have doctors and lawyers willing to advocate for abortion rights. There's healthy debate in the south. Not here. Not one doctor or lawyer will stick their head above the parapet." she said. "Here, the attitude is: Let's just ignore what we're making our young women do. Let's let Westminster (the British Parliament in London) handle this. It's ridiculous."

Bridget, who is engaged to be married, said she has yet to tell her fiance of her abortion, which followed the collapse of her previous relationship while studying at university.

"It's strange. I know he'd understand," she said. "But I'd be placing an unfair burden on him. I don't want him to have to carry that (information) around with him in this place. You have to bite your lip here about so many things. ... If we moved away, maybe to England or America, that's when I'd tell him."

Source: MacroWorld Investor, 30 October 2008

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