Government turns down compromise in swansong Westminster debate on NI abortion

For the first time ever and long overdue, MPs debated abortion rights in Northern Ireland last Wednesday in a side-debate in the alternative chamber in Westminster Hall. The argument of pro choice Labour MPs was two-pronged: that NI women should enjoy the same rights as GB women ; or if not, that a compromise should be reached whereby NI women should no longer be denied NHS funding to have an abortion in GB. The constitutional argument is hard to sustain if abortion continues to rate as a crime with the devolution of justice pending, but even as purely health matter which is already devolved. A slow human rights route through the courts might be the only answer, as is happening in an Irish landmark test case before the European Court of Human Rights. On the compromise route of funding an abortion in Great Britain the government takes refuge in an uncertain legal argument about which more needs to be heard. (see below from Paul Goggins) Would it not be possible to fund a NI abortion seeker to travel for a consultation with an English GP? I offer extracts from the debate, with brief linking commentary.

Martin Salter Labour MP moving the motion. I am afraid that anyone in this debate who trots out the argument that this is not a matter for Westminster has sold the pass…..Despite being UK taxpayers, women from Northern Ireland who travel to the mainland are unable to access abortion services that are available to women in the rest of the UK, free of charge through the NHS, which we all pay for, whether we are taxpayers in England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. They have to pay for their own travel, accommodation and abortion procedures, which can amount to £2,000 or even more. That is not okay, although it is manageable if one has £2,000, but many people in Northern Ireland do not have access to such cash, so their choices are limited.

A myth surrounding abortion in Northern Ireland is that people there do not support a woman’s right to choose. A survey by the Family Planning Association in September 2008 showed that almost two thirds of people—62 per cent.—in Northern Ireland support abortion following rape and incest, but it seems that our politicians do not. Furthermore, in its submission to the UN committee on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women, the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland called for “the same access to reproductive health care services and rights in Northern Ireland as are available in Great Britain”.

Emily Thornberry : One way forward, which would not be popular with all of us—compromise is always required—might be to allow women from Northern Ireland to have a free abortion if they came to the mainland. In that way, abortion would remain illegal in Northern Ireland, but it would be legal for a Northern Irish woman to have an abortion in England. That would be illogical, but at least it would allow such women access to free abortions.

Anne Cryer I hope that the message that goes out from this Chamber is that the UK Parliament cannot go on in the present situation, with women in a small corner of the UK being denied the rights that are enjoyed by so many women in the rest of the UK. That is so unfair. I hope that Northern Ireland Members of Parliament will eventually change their attitudes. If we cannot achieve that, I hope that Ministers in this country will make available some facility to help girls who want to come to this country by ensuring that they can access abortions and that they have the money to travel here

Willie McCrea on the anti-abortion side of course made a shrewd point about the pro-abortion tactics in the debate when he asked: Why is there such haste? Let us get to the nub of the matter. The reason for the debate was made known by Dr. Audrey Simpson. She said that once the responsibility is transferred, as part of the handover of policing and justice powers, it will be very difficult to make a change. It is nothing to do with it being the right time to make a change; it is the right time to get one result—to force the Westminster Government’s hand. Indeed, she also said that the United Kingdom Government do not have the guts to stand up to Northern Ireland politicians.
Who does Dr. Simpson think she is?

As he told MPs Alistair McDonnell of the SLDP is unique in the Commons as he practiced as a GP close to a family planning clinic on the Ormeau Road. He wrestled with the issue of abortion in the debate rather than slapping it down. Some of us face a conundrum. For 30 years I have worked with women in stress—I might be unique in the Chamber in that sense—and I have dealt with them sympathetically, humanely and compassionately. However, there is a difficulty, to which I have yet to hear an answer.
We spend millions struggling to save babies of 22-week gestation, and putting them in incubators, and quite often those lives are preserved, even if they are not of a high quality—that is another issue—but we throw 24-week gestation babies in a bucket to die. Somebody must provide an answer. We have got to find a balance. Some revolting arguments were made during the debate on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008. At that time, we ducked the issue, but it must be dealt with. We cannot throw a viable foetus—a viable infant—into a bucket to die at 24 weeks and say that it is right.
I do not think that 62 per cent. of people in Northern Ireland are in favour of abortion. In my estimation, the figure might be 30 per cent. Yes, by manipulating the 30 per cent. figure—if one picked only those who were in favour—one could get 62 per cent. However, it does not stand up to sense that if two-thirds of our population are in favour of abortion, suddenly politicians like me cower in front of the 30 or 33 per cent. who are not in favour.
It upsets me that there is no Government NHS support service for a young woman who wants to keep a child. Often the pressures are economic, and time and again, in such cases, I have had to revert to various faith-based groups to provide support—often across religious divides and all the rest—for somebody who is desperate to hold on to an infant, but unable to do so for economic reasons. We face a number of problems. Before we sort the debate once and for all, we need to start caring for people and young pregnant women, and not just seeing this as a disposable item.

Paul Goggins Minister of State. The pragmatic compromise would be that we would not change the law, but that we would somehow facilitate NHS treatment for legal abortions for women in Northern Ireland in England. However, first, it is not clear to me that GPs in Northern Ireland would have the power to refer a woman for treatment outside Northern Ireland that would be illegal in Northern Ireland. Some might argue that women should be able to leave Northern Ireland for assessment as well as treatment here, but I would argue that that would be a serious breach of the relationship between the woman and her GP. Secondly—this is crucial, and we have only seconds to go in the debate—we would either have to top-slice the Northern Ireland health budget to fund the compromise, which would undermine the devolution settlement, or taxpayers in England, Wales and Scotland would have to pay.

A weasel argument, and he knows it.

  • That dismissal of Paul Goggins is less than fair. As a (junior) Minister he is doubly hobbled in his ability to reply.

    The real issue, as I have serially argued elsewhere, is not abortion (though both sides in this debate might wish it confine it so) or any other topic which impacts on the devolved settlement.

    As both a health and a justice topic, and like so much else, it stems from NI being the uniquely-conditional part of the Union. That was what the Unionist cabal wanted, and got, in 1920 (vide, famously, Northern Ireland House of Commons Official Report, Vol 34 col 1095); and which persists to this day.

    Short of sweeping away the devolved powers and and Stormont, which (as James Russell Lowell said of Marlowe) “constantly pushes grandiosity to the verge of bombast”, Goggins or any other bod in his position would be forced to respond in similar terms.

  • Ken

    Which poses again the old question to the loyalist camp “In with the UK or not “. Pubs and swimming pools open on Sundays, laws to protect fair employment , no more gerrymandering etc would never have happened under the old Stormont. So to use a terrible analogy “you cannot be a little bit pregnant”

  • joeCanuck

    The percentage in favour of or against choice is a red herring. The real question is whether or not an individual has the right to impose their sense of morality or religious belief on another individual.

  • zendan

    A red herring is right joe..the Christian Right’s use of the abortion issue as their sword of righteousness is as old as it is flawed. These same people are happy to murder fully formed and birthed individuals for it’s cause.
    Where are these people when children are being abused and murdered in the name of Religion or by the representatives of Religion. In Donegal we have had these so called sanctifiers of human life send money to the Priest Father Green who admitted abusing practically every boy he could get his hands on in every parish he SERVED!..wanting to throw him a homecoming party.

    Cathal O Searcaigh, who some call controversial and others call a self confessed sex tourist and predator of young boys, is having a home coming in Gort a Choirce tonight trumpeted in posters writ large..’Back by popular demand’ to give a talk in ENGLISH about his childhood memories’..this event is being hosted by confirmed anti abortionists…Mmm One wonders what memories O’Searcaigh has left the impoverished and vulnerable children of Nepal with..
    But never mind he has the unshakable support of the anti-abortion lobby, those who truly value the RIGHT to life, what happens after is a very grey area..

  • There is clearly a problem with the democratic mechanisms on this issue. The public are by no means unequivocally against abortion, indeed some surveys have them on the whole supportive of it in certain circumstances, yet the four major parties are against it. The Assembly and the Northern Ireland Westminster contingent is overwhelmingly male which is clearly not right, and a worrying amount of public representatives subscribe to evangelical views that are disproportionately represented among the political class. The fact that women in Northern Ireland who wish to seek an abortion have to travel to England and pay the costs for that is class discrimination of the worst sort.

  • Telton

    @Ken

    Which poses again the old question to the loyalist camp “In with the UK or not “. Pubs and swimming pools open on Sundays, laws to protect fair employment , no more gerrymandering etc would never have happened under the old Stormont.

    Northern Ireland has FAR more anti discrimination legislation than GB. For example if I refused to serve a member of the BNP in a shop in Northern Ireland I would be a criminal, in GB it would be legal.

    As to gerrymandering are you going to rebuke people who vote tory for not allowing women the vote and people who vote US Democrat for Jim Crow laws? I wasn’t even born during “he who pays the piper calls the tune” or dodgy boundary setting. Why don’t you stop being a bigot?

  • eranu

    no joe. the question is does a person have the right to end another human life? thats what aborting a life is, ending it by someone elses decision.

    “We spend millions struggling to save babies of 22-week gestation, and putting them in incubators, and quite often those lives are preserved, even if they are not of a high quality—that is another issue—but we throw 24-week gestation babies in a bucket to die.”

    anyone who thinks that a person should have the right to end another persons life just because the other person is dependant on the mother to survive should google for some images of what a ‘fetus’ actually looks like.

  • joeCanuck

    the question is does a person have the right to end another human life?

    No, Eranu, a collection of cells does not a human being make. Otherwise every woman who chooses abortion would be put on trial for murder. Every sperm is not sacred.

  • eranu

    sperm or egg on their own arent a human life i agree joe. but when they meet they start a human life. it doesnt matter what it looks like or how small it is its still a human. if you disagree then please tell me what kind of life form a developing baby is? at what point does it become human? we’re all just a collection of cells until we die, if you want to put it like that.
    the more science learns about the development of a baby and the more images we see of organs and limbs forming, the harder it gets for people to ignore the fact that it is a human life they are ending.

  • No, Eranu, a collection of cells does not a human being make.

    Am I to assume that you are not made from cells joeCanuck?

  • joeCanuck

    My guess is that the foetus becomes human when it can process and start to understand inputs from the outside world. When is that? I don’t know. It’s obviously not at the single cell stage and it’s definite when the child is born. So, somewhere in between. Doctors presently say at 24 weeks. The Canadian Supreme Court unanimously agreed that the “person” who deserves full rights and protection occurs at birth.

  • John East Belfast

    Joe

    “foetus becomes human when it can process and start to understand inputs from the outside world”

    Would the logical conclusion of this not be that the elderly with advanced dimentia should have their lives ended ?

    I just cant intellectually get my head around any belief other than life begins at conception. If that is the case then life when it is most vulnerable should be protected and it is a crime that it isnt.

    Abortion is just wrong and I am glad the law in Northern Ireland recognises that

  • joeCanuck

    Would the logical conclusion of this not be that the elderly with advanced dimentia should have their lives ended ?

    John, that’s a straw man argument.
    Apart from anything else, abortion is never compulsory.

  • John East Belfast

    Joe

    Possibly – at this stage – but the logic around abortion will undoubtedly eventually be applied to euthanasia as well.

    Basically if society believes that life is more about its ability to function and survive then that will shape policy.

    Yes its voluntary at the minute but who knows what the future holds when resources become scarcer.

    Basically I would rather live in a society that considers all life is precious no matter what stage of the human life cycle it is at.

    At the minute the “pro life” banner is held aloft by the religious community as it believes in the concept of a soul. As a society becomes more secular who is going to take up the case ?

    I am hoping that as medical science develops it will recognise more and more the innate life within a foetus and blow the whole abortion argument out of the water – that is if anyone is listening which as Alaisdaie McDonnel points out doesnt seem to be the case with the early evidence

  • 6countyprod

    In an article in the Daily Mail, Peter Hitchens pretty much nails it when he says: Aborted babies are slaughtered by the tens of thousands, solely because they are inconvenient to young, busy people.

  • joeCanuck

    John,
    I can only speak for myself. Sitting 6 feet from me at the moment is my mother-in-law who has advanced dementia and she’s staying with us for a week. It is costing my wife and her siblings a lot of money for her care but it would never cross our minds for an instant to stop providing her with top class care at the end of her life let alone think about her as a nuisance to be “put away”.

  • My guess is that the foetus becomes human when it can process and start to understand inputs from the outside world. When is that?

    Not just when, but what? I don’t think I had a particularly good grasp of understanding, up until the age of say 3.

    The Canadian Supreme Court unanimously agreed that the “person” who deserves full rights and protection occurs at birth.

    But that’s not the same as saying that a foetus has no rights. The rights of the mother outweigh that of the foetus (within the context of health).
    But at present, if for example the foetus unexpectantly or accidentally begins to under go birth, all efforts must be made to save its/his/her life, even if such should occur in the process of abortion.

    I just cant intellectually get my head around any belief other than life begins at conception. If that is the case then life when it is most vulnerable should be protected and it is a crime that it isnt.

    I don’t go in for the conception argument myself, I take implantation as the turning point. At this point, the zygote has potential to be human life if left alone. Many conceived zygotes never implant naturally and the woman undergoes a miscarriage, however I don’t regard such as the loss of human life. To believe such, then I suspect that contraceptives such as the coil or morning after pill would be ethically wrong. I don’t believe they are.

    The most important derivative of my belief of life at implantation is the scenario where a sperm and egg meet in a petri dish. As I see it the zygote has no way of ever becoming human life unless there is human interventation. Thus it is not a human bing in itself. I therefore am comfortable with contraceptives, IVF, and dare I say it stem cell research, but not abortion after implantation (which I think is somewhere in the region of 8 days).

    One last question, and I know it’s not cool or trendy to ask, but what I fail to understand but in a western society where contraception and family planning are so easily obtainable, why are so many women conceiving children they do not want. This, as far as I can see in the real issue. Rape is only a micro percentage of this, and paradoxically many victims don’t want or reget terminations.

  • joeCanuck

    why are so many women conceiving children they do not want.

    There are probably many reasons. Drunkenness is likely a biggie.

  • John East Belfast

    Joe

    “I can only speak for myself…”

    Yes but that is the whole point of passing laws – who is going to protect those who cant speak for themselves or have no one to speak for them ?

    Conquistador

    “Many conceived zygotes never implant naturally and the woman undergoes a miscarriage, however I don’t regard such as the loss of human life.”

    A miscarriage can be a very traumatic experience for any couple – especially the mother – My wife and I had one such experience ourselves.

  • clumperino

    Oh stop getting side tracked! The real issue is whether we allow woment to make decisions over their bodies.

    Abortion is NEVER forced on anyone, but the current criminalisation in NI makes any woman who has sought an abortion or any person who assisted her a criminal liable to life in prison. That is abhorrent!

    The 22/24 weeks issue is a red herring. The vast majority of terminations happen in the first trimester, but the irony is that women from NI are usually further along their pregnany by the time they can raise teh funds necessary to travel to other parts of the UK/Europe.

    Women don’t have abortions because they are lazy and selfish, but because they recognise the responsibility that goes along with bringing another person into the world. For many women the choice is not easy, and it is made harder still by NI’s draconian and outdated criminalisation.

  • SM

    clumperino

    While you are correct to point out that the majority of woman who have abortions are neither lazy or selfish I must disagree with this nonsense that it is about a woman’s body – quite clearly the woman’s body ends at the placenta and the child’s body begins there, with its own distinct DNA, circulation, organs etc, i.e. it’s own life and own rights. Abortion is the deliberate taking of human life, and any argument seeking to permit it must engage with that reality and provide moral justification for that act – most people would for example think it justified if absolutely necessary to save the life of the mother (and I believe that is in fact legal in NI already), whereas many people think it is unjustified if it is purely for the convenience of the mother, and in between those two situations we have progressive shades of gray areas where we need to draw the line somewhere.

  • Smasher

    The best solution would be for Great Britain to come into line with Northern Ireland and stop killing their unborn children.

    Did anyone hear the interview on Pat Kenny last week with the girl in the C case who was brought to England at 13 for an abortion against the wishes of her parents. She revealed she had no idea what an abortion was and would have wanted to keep her baby. There’s freedom to choose for you.

  • GH

    Those whose personal views do not allow them to have (assuming they are female) or to support (if they are a man) abortion have a right to their views and, as a pro-choice activist, I for one will defend their right never to be forced to partake in one. However, they must also recognise that ending an unwanted pregnancy is perfectly natural activity. One of the basic characteristics of human beings distinguishing us from animals is our ability to control and shape, not only the world about us, but also our own physical functions. If someone has a heart or a kidney that doesn’t work, s/he can get a transplant. If our eyesight is poor, we get spectacles, if we have diabetes, we take insulin. It is this control that makes us more than slaves to our biology. In keeping with this human trait, women have always tried to control their fertility, tried to take some control over how their own lives are going to be shaped. Abortion is part of that human activity.

    But, says SM and others, “the woman’s body ends at the placenta and the child’s body begins there, with its own distinct DNA, circulation, organs etc, i.e. it’s own life and own rights.” Grand, if they can manage to keep an embryo/foetus alive with a placenta and without the woman’s body. BUT, and this is why women – who after all know what it is to be pregnant and to bear a child – feel able to end a pregnancy, there is no way the zygote/embryo/foetus can become a human being without the use of that one woman’s body.

    So, of course pro-choicers recognise that the foetus is a potential human being. But whether the potential for the foetus to become a human being is achieved depends entirely on the body of the woman carrying it. Only her body can nourish the foetus and turn it into a human being. The foetus can only continue to live if she lives, may not develop normally if she gets a virus in the early stages of pregnancy, will not be nourished if she does not eat, will not receive oxygen if she does not breathe, will die if she dies. It is totally dependent for its life on the use of her, and only her, body.

    This relationship between the woman and the foetus she is carrying is unique. It is not one which should be forced on any woman. And precisely because it is a unique relationship, admitting the right of a pregnant woman to decide whether or not she will continue to give life to the foetus holds no threat to the rights of terminally ill, senile, severely disabled or otherwise dependent persons. For neither they nor anyone else has, or seeks, a ‘right’ remotely like the one that anti-abortionists talk about – the right to live inside the body of another against that person’s will.

    Further the humanity the foetus has is abstract and cannot be compared to that of a woman without devaluing her life, her relationships, her hopes and aspirations. And spare me that “it’s only a few months” nonsense – just look at all the equality cases relating to pregnant women being sacked for no reason other than the pregnancy.

    Finally, please give over with the “young pregnant girls need help” argument. Most women who go to England or Europe for abortions are over 25; many of them already have children. Women have a right to self-determination. If our bodies are not our own, what is?

  • John East Belfast

    GH

    You cannot relegate the carrying of another human being to being just another female bodily function to do with as she pleases.

    The issue is when does a human life begin – are you saying above there should be no time limit on abortions at all and the “when life begins” argument is irrelevant as the woman should have complete control because the “potential for the foetus to become a human being is achieved depends entirely on the body of the woman carrying it. Only her body can nourish the foetus and turn it into a human being.”

    Also

    “This relationship between the woman and the foetus she is carrying is unique. It is not one which should be forced on any woman”

    When you get pregnant certain responsibilities and obligations come with it

    “Further the humanity the foetus has is abstract and cannot be compared to that of a woman without devaluing her life, her relationships, her hopes and aspirations”.

    What because the woman has lived a little already then her life is more valuable than another human being who has not yet had the chance. How incredibly selfish

  • GH

    John East Belfast
    I would have thought it obvious from what I argue that, once a foetus is capable of surviving outside of the woman’s body, then it has a separate right to life. Before that, the relationship is a unique one. Of course, once a woman decides to give her body over to doing the work (and to the danger to her health – as evident now with the swine flu saga) of giving life to another human being then she does have responsibilities and obligations: to not smoke or drink alcohol, eat healthily, rest etc etc.
    But, if she did not choose to become pregnant? If contraception failed – and remember even the Pill has a 2% failure rate? Does she have a responsibility or obligation to give over her body?
    And how can you deny that the humanity of the foetus is abstract? Most abortions take place before the 10th week of pregnancy when no one else besides the woman can even know that the foetus exists. Medical people tell us that, left to nature, about 3 out of every 4 fertilised eggs do not make it past embryo stage (the stage within which most abortions take place). So, abstract humanity is about right.
    SELFISH???? I’m more than fed up of hearing this about women who have abortions. So, you’ve got three kids already, one of them with autism and you are finding it difficult to make ends meet, get your disabled kid to all his appointments AND ensure that the other two are not neglected. How selfish of you to have an abortion…WTF?

  • John East Belfast

    GH

    “I would have thought it obvious from what I argue that, once a foetus is capable of surviving outside of the woman’s body, then it has a separate right to life. Before that, the relationship is a unique one”

    It is a unique one but that uniqueness does not extend to giving the mother the right to end that other human being’s life.

    “Of course, once a woman decides to give her body over to doing the work (and to the danger to her health – as evident now with the swine flu saga) of giving life to another human being then she does have responsibilities and obligations: to not smoke or drink alcohol, eat healthily, rest etc etc.”

    I would have thought the most human thing to do would be to do all in your power (unless it was threatening your own life) to bring that life to full term as nature intended ?
    Surely it is totally unnatural to end another life when you have the power to save it ?

    “But, if she did not choose to become pregnant? If contraception failed – and remember even the Pill has a 2% failure rate? Does she have a responsibility or obligation to give over her body?”

    Yes once she becomes pregnant she does have that responsibility – her body for 9 months ceases to be just about her

    “SELFISH???? I’m more than fed up of hearing this about women who have abortions. So, you’ve got three kids already, one of them with autism and you are finding it difficult to make ends meet, get your disabled kid to all his appointments AND ensure that the other two are not neglected. How selfish of you to have an abortion…WTF?”

    I know several women who got pregnant in non ideal circumstances but chose not to have an abortion although the option was considered. Not one of those women ever regretted the decision to not have an abortion.

    I suspect the number of women who had one and have lived to regret it is proportionatley much greater.

    And what is the “make ends meet” argument about – the majority of us grew up in Irish working class “poverty” and I am sure none of us ever say to our parents why did you bring me into this world.
    In today’s welfare state society the idea is even more rubbish

  • joeCanuck

    Meanwhile,
    The Northern Ireland Criminal Justice Minister, Paul Goggins, MP, has launched a 19 week long consultation on proposed new laws “to tackle unacceptable behaviour at sports grounds and events.” He says that this will bring N.I. into line with the rest of the U.K.

  • John East Belfast

    joe

    What are you saying legislation dealing with sporting hooligans is on a par with the contraversy surrounding abortion ?

    The fact that UK Law can recognise the diversity within the Union is a strength and not a weakness

  • joeCanuck

    No, John. I am querying why N.I. needs to be brought into line in some areas and not in others. That subject is worthy of debate in itself.