Sunday October 19 2008
Northern Ireland's powerful anti-abortion lobby held a rally at Stormont yesterday as part of its campaign to pile pressure on both the Assembly and Downing Street to ensure that the Province is treated differently from the rest of the UK. They want to maintain an unjust and absurd status quo: that Northern Ireland continues to be the only part of the UK where the 1967 abortion act does not apply.
The 'pro-life' alliance is backed by a coalition of Democratic Unionists, Protestant evangelicals and the Catholic Church, but with the exception of the Progressive Unionists and the Alliance party's Anna Lo, the other main Assembly parties are also opposed to extending the 1967 act to Northern Ireland.
Yet women, many of them desperately poor, some the victims of rape and abuse, will still take the boat and plane to Britain to terminate their pregnancies, often at great financial as well as personal and emotional cost.
A smaller minority will actually be offered terminations within Northern Ireland hospitals; that is those women whose lives would be in immediate mortal danger if their pregnancy went ahead. This leaves frontline medical staff, notably the midwives, in a precarious legal position. The Royal College of Midwives has warned that its members in Northern Ireland could face prosecution under 19th-century laws that still apply there unless either the 1967 act is extended or local health minister Michael McGimpsey lays down clear guidelines to protect health workers.
A group of Labour MPs is trying to end this anomaly and give Northern Ireland women the same freedom to choose as their counterparts in Britain. However, in this newspaper today a small, courageous band of pro-choice public figures in Northern Ireland claim that Downing Street is prepared to yield to the anti-abortion lobby, and use parliamentary chicanery to push any motion aimed at extending the '67 act so far down the agenda that it will disappear.
MPs on all sides of the House of Commons should ensure the government does not surrender to the forces of reaction in Northern Ireland. They should side with the women of the Province, who for almost 40 years have been denied a choice that every other woman in the UK has been able to exercise. On this issue Labour MPs in particular should rebel against their government in defence of that freedom.