Last week Dublin saw it’s third annual “March for Choice” in an attempt by protesters to show their anger at, and disappointment with, the Government at it’s limited abortion legislation. The protesters also demanded further loosening of abortion laws in Ireland, through repeal of the Eighth Amendment to the Irish Constitution. However the focus was very much on the situation of abortion laws in the Republic. Abortion and the North is a topic which some protesters at the march wanted to see addressed.
Speaking at the 2014 March for Choice was activist and academic at the University of Ulster, Goretti Horgan. Horgan explained: “The situation up North is that legally we have a right to an abortion if our health is in danger, but in fact it’s the same as down here.
“Our new Health Minister is a young earth creationist. He’s also an associate of the Caleb Foundation.”
According to Horgan the Caleb Foundation (a lobby group to represent the views of the Evangelical community) stand against LGBT rights, “as well as against women’s rights.”
Former Northern Ireland Health Minister, Edwin Poots MLA, had been a strong opponent of liberal abortion laws in the six counties. Mr. Poots, a young earth creationist, also opposed various LGBT rights. Poots was recently replaced by Jim Wells MLA as Minister for Health. However this was a small consolation to pro-choice and LGBT activists. Like his predecessor, Wells is also an opponent of both abortion and LGBT rights.
Horgan explained: “If you read some of what [Jim Wells] said in the Assembly it is really insulting to women on every single level. It’s not as if they’re doing anything to help women who face an unplanned pregnancy make a decision to have a child because they are cutting social welfare, they’re cutting child care, they’ve cut grants.
“It’s cut, cut, cut, in terms of actually giving women a choice to have a child and I think that’s a really important thing to have. In my university the creches have all been closed so what’s a student who’s pregnant and doesn’t have family support around them, what are they supposed to do?"
In relation to students and the Northern Ireland abortion situation, the president of Queens University Belfast Pro-Choice Society, Gráinne, explained her view on the issue.
“I think in the North, abortion occurs within a very specific context and that context is premised in conflict.”
“Where we see ourselves now is within an Executive and that executive has very patriarchal anti-woman policies. We’ve just seen the decline of Edwin Poots, our Health Minister, and we’ve seen the rise of Jim Wells and I think that within that context women in particular in Northern Ireland, there’s a new consciousness among them and what we’re out for is not necessarily to reform the law, because we know that’s not achievable, what we’re here for is to promote a presence and show people that even within the confines of the law there is a way to procure an abortion if that’s the choice for you.”
Journalist and civil rights activist, Eamon McCann, also explained his views on the topic from his experiences of campaigning in the North and South.
“My student activity was 50 years ago but a woman’s rights were even being argued about then. I remember the difference between arguing about radical politics and women’s rights in Queens University and a hundred yards down the road, whether it was in Catholic or Protestant areas, it’s not that people were reactionary, it simply was much more difficult.
“You didn’t have the strength of even a loose collective around you, so I think that the input of students will be absolutely crucial to this demonstration.”
In explaining the situation in the North, McCann also criticised the Good Friday Agreement’s role in the current make-up of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
“All these issues exist in the North too. That’s sometimes forgotten, even in speeches. You’ve got the issue of the 8th Amendment down here, you’ve also got a party based on religious fundamentalism, the DUP, with a veto over what is happening in the North, and that arises from the nature of the devolved government and indeed of the Good Friday Agreement.
“Women must wait in the North because of a political settlement that doesn’t represent the majority of people. Every public opinion poll shows that more than sixty-five percent of the people in the North, right across a majority of Protestants and majority of Catholics, believe that in cases particularly or rape and of incest, of attempted suicide and of cases where a woman would be a mental or physical wreck if they carried on, and that’s the grounds of the 1967 Abortion Act in Britain.
“We in the North, whether we like it or not, we pay British taxes. We support the National Health Service under which abortions are carried out across the water. Why shouldn’t women in the North have the same rights as women across the water? And that’s an echo of the argument which had to be made back in the 1960s for civil rights. We want the same rights as other people in the United Kingdom have, and for as long as we are part of the United Kingdom this is a democratic demand. So that should always be remembered in the South too.”
In July this year the controversial pro-life group, Youth Defence, in conjunction with it’s sister organisation in the North, Precious Life, held a “Rally for Life” in Belfast. A smaller pro-choice counter-protest was also present at the event.
Precious Life’s leader Bernie Smyth, who has previously criticised the pro-life movement in the Republic for not being religiously-inclined enough, hit the headlines recently in the North for her methods of activism. In an ongoing legal case, Smyth has been accused of harassing Marie Stopes clinic director, Dawn Purvis at her workplace. Ms. Smyth has consistently denied the allegation.
A poll published last week in the Belfast Telegraph found that 58% of respondents think the choice of abortion should be made available to women, after all alternatives have been presented as options to them.