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‘Failure to extend the Abortion Act puts the lives of women in Northern Ireland at risk’

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By failing to extend the Abortion Act hypocritical politicians are subjecting the women of Northern Ireland to a dangerous discrimination that no other British women have to experience, argues Jane Wright

On 22 October a bill sponsored by Diane Abbott MP, aiming to extend the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland, failed
to pass through the House of Commons.

This bill had strong support from pro-choice and women’s groups but was almost unanimously opposed by the political parties of Northern Ireland, which mendaciously suggested that the passing of the bill would affect the peace process.

As The Sunday Times journalist Liam Clarke wrote, the same politicians would not have dared to state such ‘arrant nonsense’ locally – but it may have swayed some who are less familiar with Northern Ireland politics.

There was also a widespread belief that Gordon Brown failed to support this bill as a quid pro quo for the Democratic Unionist Party’s support of his 42-day detention limit earlier this year.

The failure of the bill leaves Northern Ireland’s law in a mess governed only by the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, which sentences any woman who attempts to end a pregnancy with ‘hard labour’.

That is not to say abortions do not happen in Northern Ireland – small numbers do but the grounds on which they may take place are unclear. Health trusts have gone to court to seek clarification.

This quagmire leaves women who want to end pregnancies with three options. The first is to find £2,000 to travel to England for an abortion, which 40 women a week do. Poorer women are left with two options. These are: continue with the pregnancy;
or attempt to abort by, for example buying dangerous or ineffective drugs from the internet. This egregious inequality means women in Northern Ireland are discriminated against in a way no other British women are. Their physical, psychological and emotional health is put at risk in a way that other British women do not have to suffer.

I write not just as a nurse but as one of the thousands of women who has had to travel to England to end a pregnancy. To choose an abortion is never painless but imagine the added trauma of having to arrange (often secretly) travel, funding, clinic appointments and childcare, and of having to journey back across the Irish Sea still bleeding and in pain within hours of surgery.

I have also lent or given money to women determined to end a pregnancy to avoid them resorting to more desperate measures.

I have never forgotten a young woman arriving at my door 20 years ago. She was 38 weeks pregnant and had told no one. She had received no healthcare and concealed the pregnancy with a tight corset. Knowing I was a nurse, she asked for help. With a social worker, I arranged a cover story so she could travel to a mother and baby home. She gave birth a week later and the baby was adopted. Even now I don’t like to think of the risks posed by that pregnancy.

Those comfortable hypocrites who opposed the extension of the 1967 act prefer to believe that their actions save life. The truth is that the problem of abortion is at best exported and, at worst, life and health is risked by refusing women safe legal abortion. Northern Ireland has had five deaths from illegal abortions since 1967. It has also had a number of infanticides, for example newborn ‘Baby Carrie’, found in a black bin liner not five miles from where I live. She had been killed and her body dumped. Her mother was never identified.

The issue will probably be devolved to Northern Ireland’s parliament. Not to the Health Department but the Policing and Justice Department, making the issue a criminal rather than health matter. To make matters worse, the department has not
yet been set up because politicians are still arguing over it. Ergo, there is little chance of progress in the near future.

Michael McGimpsey, Northern Ireland’s health minister, has promised draft guidelines on abortion for the Health Committee but my guess is that this will be a fudge, which will help few if any of the 2,080 women travelling to England this year. The governments of Westminster and Northern Ireland should hang their heads in shame.

Jane Wright is nurse education consultant at Beeches Management Centre, Belfast

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