Today’s post is written by regular guest contributor. Edward Kendall. Tweet @Edward_Kendall.
Earlier this month it was announced that David Ford, Northern Ireland’s justice minister, is to launch a consultation on whether Northern Ireland’s abortion law should be changed to allow abortion where the unborn child is terminally-ill or has been conceived in rape or incest. Abortion is presumptively illegal in Northern Ireland and still remains a criminal offence, which carries a life sentence. The only exceptions are to save a woman’s life, or if there is a risk of permanent and serious damage to her mental and physical health. Last year only 91 terminations were carried out in hospitals in Northern Ireland compared to 185,122 in England and Wales.
The Department of Justice issued a statement which claimed the minister questioned the viability of the current legislation. The statement said: “David Ford believes there is a question whether, in certain difficult but closely-defined cases, the law’s line has been drawn in the right place. The consultation will therefore focus on cases of terminal foetal abnormality. The Department is keen to be as specific as possible about the changes it will propose, but defining them in terms the law can apply throws up complex issues that will require time to address.”
As you might expect, pro-life groups have responded negatively to the minister’s statement, fearing that changes to the law may lead to an increasing number of children being aborted.
Bernadette Smyth from the Precious Life Group said: “I am outraged that there is going to be a consultation in Northern Ireland on whether some children will live and whether some will die. I do believe this will open the floodgates. This is not care, this is killing.”
Liam Gibson, Northern Ireland’s development officer for the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC), said: “The people and politicians of Northern Ireland have shown, time and time again, that they reject pro-abortion attempts to change Northern Ireland’s abortion law. I am confident that they will do so again. This consultation is not the result of public opinion but the result of a propaganda campaign orchestrated by the pro-abortion lobby and its willing accomplices in the media.”
Mr Gibson continued: “Abortion is not a compassionate response to the diagnosis of fatal disability. Babies with fatal disabilities are no less human than other children and share the same right to life as all other human beings. The law in Northern Ireland respects that right, while the British Abortion Act has led to the situation where it is lawful to kill a disabled child up to birth.”
From the other side of the fence, Audrey Simpson, director of the pro-choice Family Planning Association said: “We hear from women on an almost weekly basis…who have become pregnant as a result of rape and incest. It is time that the Northern Ireland Assembly looked at these cases and introduced appropriate legislation.”
But Simpson’s point begs the question: why should the unborn child conceived in rape or incest necessarily suffer the fatal punishment of being aborted? It defies the basic principle of natural justice that the innocent should not be punished along with the guilty.
Those in Northern Ireland should be thankful that their government has decided to consult its people before legislating. Hopefully such a consultation will be more open and responsible than the British Government’s same-sex marriage listening exercise, which served no obvious purpose and did nothing to affect the way the legislation was bulldozed through Parliament. The big difference in Northern Ireland is that unlike the same-sex marriage bill which was overwhelmingly supported by Labour, the Lib Dems and half of Conservative MPs, there is no appetite for liberalising abortion laws amongst Northern Irish parties.
No proposals for new legislation have actually been announced, only a consultation and Mr Ford has said he is not seeking a fundamental change in the law or an extension of the 1967 Abortion Act. This, inevitably, makes it difficult to speculate about the consequences. But I think it is fair to say that the overwhelming majority of people in Northern Ireland find abortion wrong and morally abhorrent, and would reject any attempt to introduce abortion on demand (a sort of birth control for the careless) in the province. In contrast to the rest of the UK, politics and the public mind set is very different on this issue, which may be unhelpfully and unfairly seen as backward by pro-choice groups. Religion still has a much greater influence in Northern Ireland, and these attitudes surely have an impact on the number of women choosing to have an abortion. More than 1,000 women a year travel from Northern Ireland to the other parts of the UK for an abortion. Allowing for the fact that Northern Ireland’s population is 30 times smaller than that of England and Wales, women from England and Wales (where abortion is now basically on demand) are approximately 6 times more likely to have an abortion than those from Northern Ireland. Even if we take into account the use of abortion pills, there can be little doubt that Northern Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws are resulting in a significantly lower rate of terminations of unborn babies. Is the Abortion Act such an unquestionably wonderful thing that pro-choice advocates and some in the media make it out to be? Legislators in Northern Ireland should tread with care despite what those attempting to apply pressure to loosen the law might think.
Personally, I would like to see as few abortions as possible take place in Northern Ireland. The best way to ensure this is to make sure that the law protects life from the moment of conception (since that is when life begins), with a recognition that there may be strictly limited conditions under which abortion could be considered the lesser of two evils.
As a final thought, a survey from 2011 on the self-perception of adults with Down’s syndrome found that nearly 99% of those people with Down’s syndrome questioned indicated that they were happy with their lives; 97% liked who they are; and 96% liked how they look. And yet we know that 92 per cent of women in England and Wales who are told their child may have Down’s syndrome opt for a termination. How many children with Down’s in Northern Ireland will be very glad as they grow up that their parents were not living elsewhere in the UK when they were conceived?