Don’t play legalistic games with abortion

Strange – or maybe not so strange – that the overwhelmingly male Slugger blogosphere tends to  prefer the sectarian dingdong  to difficult social issues like abortion which the Assembly and the legal establishment between them actually affect. But if constitutional issues are your bag, there’s now something in the subject for you too.

After the opening of the Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast under an actually progressive unionist Dawn Purvis, the Attorney General John Larkin  weighed in with an offer to conduct a forensic examination of the clinic organisers before the Assembly Justice Committee.  MLAs  have on the face of it a valid concern that the clinic may be unregulated because providing a service like the morning after pill and the like was not envisaged by the existing legislation dating back to 1945.  As far as I know, Larkin’s appearance would be a constitutional first for a non-member to participate in a legislative committee session in the UK, acting as counsel. Legal provision exists for the Attorney to take part in Assembly sessions but it has not yet been implemented.   But that provision however doesn’t seem to cover Larkin’s offer to conduct questioning before the Justice Committee where it seems he would be acting as a “guardian for the rule of law”  whatever that is precisely, and not as the Executive’s chief legal adviser.

Is Larkin wise to make this offer? My old colleague Joshua Rozenberg thinks not, because as Attorney General he might have to refer the matter to court. Nor have members of the Justice Committee exactly leapt at his offer. The vice chair Sinn Fein’s Raymond McCartney has even ducked it, preferring the police to intervene if the law has definitely been broken (reflect on that for a moment). This is a view which has failed to commend itself to the PSNI, as it begs the whole question of whether the law has been broken or not . It’s been pointed out before that Larkin has form when it comes to abortion, although no doubt he would carry out his function with scrupulous fairness. And better him I suppose than Edwin Poots flying solo on the floor of the House.

Liam Clarke in the Bel Tel has delivered himself  of a few  highly informative pithy pieces on the subject. In one he calls for clarity over the operation of the law, which is clearly under scientific as well as social pressure. In the other he has doubts about the Larkin initiative, likening it to the inquisitorial Star Chamber of 400 years ago which could order executions like the hideous Spanish Inquisition.

Paul Givan and  his fellow members of the Justice Committee are unlikely to go that far. But if the Attorney is finally invited to legally examine the Marie Stopes clinic before the Assembly Justice Committee, then surely in the interests of fairness the clinic and all other witnesses should be able to brief their own QCs at public expense? It would certainly make great telly. Whether it would enhance the Assembly’s reputation is another question.

Is a legal inquisition before the Assembly really the best way to deal with the highly sensitive subject of abortion? I think not.

If the Clinic presents new legal challenges since  the Court of Appeal in 2003, let Mr Larkin pursue the issue before the courts. It appears – s0meone please  correct me if I’m wrong  -that consultations on revised guidelines for the termination of pregnancy begun in 2010 are still in limbo after the revised guidelines were issued, then withdrawn. If so this is a disgrace, bearing in mind that the issue went to judicial review and then the Court of Appeal almost a decade ago.

Let the Assembly concentrate on endorsing the guidelines, however limited they are,  and on mitigating the pain for around 1500 women a year who have to pay for an abortion in Great Britain because Northern Ireland’s omission from the 1967 GB Abortion Act means the NHS principle of free treatment does not apply to them. And let greater support be offered to that hidden number of women who cannot afford to travel.

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  • Larkin is well able to justify his intervention since it is almost certain that there will be legal challenges motivated by a desire to shut down the clinic.

    Whether there is an emergence of greater clarity about the law is another matter.

    In the end, it is the responsibility of the Assembly to decide what appropriate laws should exist for Northern Ireland in the 21st century. Unfortunately, this issue is just too divisve to result in any positive forward movement. Larkin is just going to waste a lot of time and achieve very little. Expect a future media circus, a lot of heated argument and grandstanding by politicians.

    I have my own view of what the law should be. However, given my negative view of the Assembly, I am reduced to dwelling on my fear that all the shenanigans in Stormont will become the No. 1 subject at the dining table and drown out the more progressive topics.

  • Pete Baker

    “It appears – someone please correct me if I’m wrong -that consultations on revised guidelines for the termination of pregnancy begun in 2010 are still in limbo after the revised guidelines were issued, then withdrawn. If so this is a disgrace, bearing in mind that the issue went to judicial review and then the Court of Appeal almost a decade ago.”


    That would appear to be the height of it.

    Which further calls into question the Attorney General’s offer to act as “guardian for the rule of law” in expanding his remit into the deliberations of an Assembly Committee in this matter.

    Should he not, perhaps, be more concerned with the Assembly clarifying the law in this case?

    Or is that what he is offering to do…

  • Stephen Blacker

    According to comments made on this debate on radio and tv the High Court has ordered the Health Department from a few years back to issue guidelines to give clarification to health workers so they can stay within the law as it stands here so there is no doubt this will go to court.

    The comments Mr. Larkin made in 2008 seem to have been for effect more than anything but he has proved himself far from neutral. I think it will be very difficult to close this Clinic because anything they do in it is already carried out in Northern Ireland. Just like any business if it operates illegally it will answer to the law so guidelines are a must.

    There is a Marie Stopes Clinic in Dublin and it offers all the things as the one in Belfast except the offer of a termination up to 9 weeks.

  • Mick Fealty


    Prompted by a tweet from Tim Brannigan, it’s worth noting that the deputy chair is Raymond McCartney, not Robert.

  • HeinzGuderian

    I would ask one simple question.
    How many children has this fellow Larkin given birth to ?

    Well and able to justify his interventions,you say ?
    I wonder…..

  • deirdre

    Isn’t it interesting how not a single woman has commented and how long this has taken to get to Slugger?
    Facebook has been littered with some fairly strong debates on the issue, and it’s been in the public domain for a while now.
    AG Larkin is doing neither himself nor anyone else any favours by offering to bully and browbeat those who have the temerity to disagree with him. And, after all, he has form with having stupid ideas before; a fine example being his attempt to supress publication of Peter Hain’s memoirs.
    Time women had the full choice and ability to decide for themselves as to what is the best decision for themselves and their families.

  • Brian Walker

    Mick, Aaagh! Raymond McCartney,now corrected thanks. I’ve actually been emailing him re something else, thankfully correctly

  • Mick Fealty


    It’s worth following Pete’s links. As ever, he’s been keeping a tight watch on the action (or rather) inaction of the Executive.

    I was interviewed on Tipp radio last week about the Stopes Clinic bringing abortion to Ireland for the first time ever.

    The journalist concerned seemed not to understand that that abortion is actually legal (or, pending a functional guideline, not illegal) in both jurisdictions, after a ruling of a European Court.

    And neither legislature is minded to clarify where the law might cut in. As with other issues that the party’s of OFMdFM cannot agree (or rather be seen to agree) Mr Larkin may be offering his services for the sake of just getting something done.

    But I doubt he’ll be thanked for it if they do take him up on his kind offer.

  • sherdy

    Heinz – To follow your logic, someone who has not committed murder would not be able to comment on its evil.

  • BarneyT

    I dont know how this issue of abortion is going to be resolved in the Assembly, particularly with religious parties such as the SDLP and DUP having a prescribed view or a party line on the matter. By definition they are out of the abortion debate, but of course that is not going to be possible.

  • carlota martinez

    I think one has to differentiate between the views of John Larkin, expressed at a time when he had no constitutional or quasi judicial function, and those articulated at a time when he is the AG.

    Notwithstanding that view, it would undoubtedly be unwise of the Justice Committee to take up Mr. Larkins offer. Perception is critically important, especially in an area as sensitive as abortion, and it may be difficult for the AG to convince people that he comes to this issue with an open mind.

    John Larkin should concentrate on his duties as legal advisor to the Executive and not be embarking on dangerous frolics such as this.

    Furthermore, perhaps the Executive should tell him this.

  • carlota,

    Perhaps I don’t quite know what you mean, but I don’t agree with the suggestion that we should differentiate his views. I think his present position is the outcome of his previously stated opposition to a woman having the right to make her own medical decisions. As a public servant, appointed not elected, he should not be allowing his personal views cloud his public duties. He is a foolish man and I don’t think he should go uncensured. Alas, there is no one in the executive who will do so because of their own religious predilictions.

  • In the end, it is the responsibility of the Assembly to decide what appropriate laws should exist for Northern Ireland in the 21st century.

    Very true. But human rights, such as a person’s right to decide what is an appropriate medical decision for themself, whether a man or a woman, should not be a “thing” that should be a subject for others to involve themselves in. Quite simply, it’s nobody else’s business.

  • BarneyT

    Correct Mister Joe

    For me is a case by case issue in many ways.

    Can a man elect not to become a father, even if his partner wants the child?

    Should a man have the right to force his partner to have a child even if she does not want it?

    A man should have the right to NOT become a father, and this right should be preserved, even of the woman wants the child, in my view.

    However the second scenario is very different as the woman is being stripped of her rights not to become mother, but the man would be using her merely as a host for his child. In this scenario, the man in my opinion loses his right to become a father and the decision is for the woman alone.

    Before the “keep your knickers on brigage” or “Put your todger away posse” (almost misspelled that) step in…Accidents can happen and children can be conceived at the wrong time, by accident and through entrapment and worse.

  • IrelandNorth

    Certainly aborton is no game, political or theological. While males may only be mere planters of seed in the fertile soil of the human race that is woman, where wouold the gestators of the human race be without the mere soweres of seed? Why, then should the decision to abort the prenatal mission be considerd an exclusively female decision. Though in the case of rape or non commital paternity, obviously such co-creators would forfeit their right of input. Responsible sexuality is the answer to this imponderable conundrum.

  • Eileen Calder

    If I let you plant your seed in my garden and then decide I don’t want it growing there, it is absolutely my right and none of your damned business should I decide to remove it, whenever I choose in whatever way i choose.

  • galloglaigh


    Surely it’s both our seed, and we both have a say?

  • Do women then who have seed implanted forcibly against their will and whose biological defences against becoming pregnant as a result of “legitimate” rape just have to accept that it’s God’s will?

  • galloglaigh

    You’re right Joe, but my reply to Eileen’s comment, is in context with the comment she made. She allowed the seed to be planted. That would be consensual would it not?.