Change in the abortion laws in Ireland north and south likely to be glacial and conservative

The tragic case of Sarah Ewart’s opens up another round of discussions on the appropriateness of current abortion laws, both and south of the border. In this respect both jurisdictions on the island have much more in common than in Britain where the liberal 1967 abortion law legalises a woman’s right to choose in almost every circumstance.

In Ireland the guidelines that exist are often not well understood, even by those at the heart of the operation of the state’s medical institutions. A recent report on the death of Savita Halappanavar highlighted failures in basic care for the mother. The legislative response of government was to focus entirely on the health of the mother issue.

The Ewart case opens up another line, which the Dail decided to keep out of the legislative debate (not least because it cost them an arm and a leg politically to effect the limited changes they did at the time), ie the viability of the foetus once it comes to term.

But there is, as Melanie McDonough points out, no substantive pro choice lobby for converting Northern Ireland to the liberal legislation that currently exists in the rest of the UK.

No matter how many Irish women take the plane to Manchester, abortion law is set to take an age to change simply to take account of cases that ought to meet with even a grudging approval of all but the most conservative of social conservatives.


  • runepig

    Surely if Belfast is as British as Finchley, Northern Irish women should have the same rights as those in England?

  • paulG

    Looks like everybody secretly accepts it’s not as British as Finchley or even close.

  • Comrade Stalin

    runepig, which is exactly the point. Ulster is not British. Any time anything happens to bring us into line with UK practice (or “the benefits of the union” as some might call it) the unionists are up there fighting it. Another example is the wasteful duplication of having a separate driver and vehicle licensing operation (and a completely independent vehicle testing regime) rather than combining it with the UK-wide system.

    Mick, the regulations in the RoI as you pointed out are indeed ambiguous, this is also true in the North (Poots was ordered by the High Court to issue abortion guidelines years ago and is no doubt sitting on the guidelines that his officials will have drafted up for him). This is deliberate; by keeping the parameters of the law undefined and fuzzy, doctors are either forced to err on the side of caution; or are provided with legal backing to avoid them having to discharge any responsibilities they might have which conflict with their personal religious beliefs. That’s what this is all about. Sooner or later, another woman is going to die because of this.

    The only reason why women aren’t dying in greater numbers is because they can travel to England. This is the crutch upon which current government policy on this island rests.

  • Charles_Gould

    I could see policy changing less than gradually. Look at other social issues.

    The woman’s right to choose must prevail.

  • derrydave

    The conservatism of the electorate on both sides of the border on this issue undoubtedly acts as a warning to all parties to avoid getting involved at all costs.

    This is one of those rare issues which underlines clearly how similar the unionist and nationalist communities are in some respects, and how different we are from those in Britain.

  • Mick Fealty


    Run us through how that might happen?

  • Bemused Southerner

    The woman’s right to choose must prevail.

    Prevail over what, Charles? The right of the unborn?

  • Ní Dhuibhir

    Because I’m noisily pro-choice, I end up having an awful lot of conversations with people (usually women, though not always) who quietly have a much, much wider range of views than those that have any form of expression within our party political system. You’re absolutely right that it’s hard to see change coming from Stormont, and Westminster has washed its hand of us, and neither gives a shit about the UN (see CEDAW ad nauseam). However, I see societal attitudes changing here in a way that goes beyond the practically unarguable cases that have recently been highlighted.

    When attitudes to women having sex become less punitive, ‘hell rub it up her’ becomes a less standard response to unwanted pregnancy. Precious Life’s access to schools is at least debated now. Parents complain.

    Political inaction on this issue here is at least as much a result of the age-old idea that ‘women’s issues’ are something we can get round to thinking about once we’ve finished doing Politics as it is a result of considered positions on the part of the populace or politicians.

    As for the linked article, it’s plainly not true that ‘there is absolutely no demand in Northern Ireland for an abortion law that operates like it does in the rest of Britain’. I can introduce Melanie McDonough to loads of people who have been demanding just that for decades, and loads more who haven’t been alive that long and just don’t talk the same language as Edwin Poots.

  • Ní Dhuibhir


  • Scáth Shéamais

    Why is Melanie McDonagh linked to as if she’s some kind of expert on the issue? Her article offers no evidence at all for her assertion that most women in the North are opposed to abortion provision.

  • Seamuscamp

    The Melanie quote was from an article in The Spectator. Everyone who writes for Spectator is an expert, particularly if they are right wing. The article was actually about inherent bias in the BBC, particularly as the person chosen to represent Northern Ireland womankind was a known pro-choice activist.

    MM didn’t wrap it up as Mick asserts: “no substantive pro choice lobby for converting Northern Ireland to the liberal legislation”. She says: ” there is absolutely no demand in Northern Ireland for an abortion law that operates like it does in the rest of Britain” – at first sight self-evident tosh – but then reformulates as: “what are the chances of any Northern Irish woman actually opposed – as most are – to abortion coming on the programme?”

  • “what are the chances of any Northern Irish woman actually opposed – as most are – to abortion coming on the programme?”

    Margaret Anne McKillop? She has just resigned from SF but remains as an Independent on Moyle District Council:

    Cllr McKillop also said Sinn Fein’s position on abortion was a key factor in her decision to resign.

    “The disciplining of Peadar Toibin, a Sinn Fein TD, after his refusal to back pro-abortion legislation in the south, coupled with the party’s support for private abortions at the Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast has challenged my perception on rights, particularly of the unborn,” said Cllr McKillop.

    She has also made some very scathing remarks about the party leadership: ‘a culture of bullying and innuendo’, ‘decisions that serve a narrow party interest ahead of the common good’ and ‘instructions .. are to be carried out without examination or query’.

    Perhaps her failure to be selected as a party candidate for the super-council election also influenced her decision.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Why is Melanie McDonagh linked to as if she’s some kind of expert on the issue? Her article offers no evidence at all for her assertion that most women in the North are opposed to abortion provision.

    Abortion campaigners aren’t required to give evidence or even take into account opposing views.

    On Monday a woman phoned into Nolan to complain that it was biased and spreading propaganda. Nolan pointed out that the show contacted pro-life campaigners and they refused to be interviewed.

  • and from the Ballycastle Chronicle:

    And in what could send shock-waves through Moyle and further afield, in her resignation statement the Councillor accuses Sinn Féin Councillors of undermining and eventually ending Moyle’s Twinning Agreement with Gaza, claiming they had been instructed to, as the agreement had become “an embarrassment to some ‘friends of the party'”.

    Now, which friends would those be? Would they be financial backers?

  • Taoiseach

    Stephen Nolan is a disgusting disgrace to journalism. He will do anything (except actually lose weight) to promote his ghastly programme. All of these stories are manufactured and manipulated. The constant refrain of “had to go to Britain”. No, this woman didn’t have to go to Britain any more than I have to go to Holland to use drugs or Thailand to use prostitutes. She should have stayed in Northern Ireland, received appropriate medical care and mourned her child when it died. There was a letter in the Belfast Telegraph on Monday from a woman in similar circumstances. She didn’t go to England and she certainly didn’t phone Nolan.

  • sean treacy

    Charles,as you are obviously an SDLP supporter, would you care to comment on that partys absolute cowardice with regard to this issue.Even Nolan had to point out their cravenness this morning.

  • Charles_Gould

    Sean: Abortion should be available in Ireland, leaving it to the woman to choose. This is an area where SDLP falls short of Labour values.

    Anna Lo is sound on this issue.

  • paulG


    What kind of abortion regime are you proposing?

    Limited circumstances, 24 weeks UK style, or as late as you like E German syle ( or other)?

  • BarneyT

    It rumbles on. Can a woman be forced to carry to term? That’s step 1. In Britain the answer is yes once 24 weeks expires. That’s a precedent which many accept. Even pro choice folks would agree that termination post 24 weeks whereby both mother to be and child to be are healthy, should not be permitted. For me that is common ground between pro choice and pro life. The next stage is, what if the unborn child has a defect and this can be wide ranging. There will be no solution to that one as there are so many physical and emotional variables at work. What if a woman simply does not want to be a mother and this strikes her at 22 weeks? Again this is territory where little compromise will be found. What if the child to be will not survive beyond days or if carrying to term carried risk to the mothers health, what should happen? Like the scenario of the heatly mother and child at 24 weeks, surely there’s is scope for agreement at the other extreme where mother, child or both are at risk? Too much religious fundamentalism is at work on this subject which prevents a human response on this matter. Those that rely on religion to proved answers to this should remove themselves from the debate.

  • Barnshee

    Hypocrisy writ large

    Abortion in Ireland —NO NO NO

    Abortion by Irish in England —-er keep quite its not illegal there.

    (The answer to the pro life lot is to hand THEM the costs and burdens of people adhering to their views.)

  • paulG

    Morning After Pill = Contraception.
    Abortion at 8 months = Infanticide.

    Logic dictates that there must be a point between 3 days and 8 months where one can be sure that it is contraception and that later than that point one cannot be sure it’s not murder.

    That is the point that anybody wanting an abortion needs to get it done by (excepting brain dead babies etc.). If it’s 10 weeks or whatever, so be it. Couldn’t make your mind up or didn’t feel suicidal until later – that’s too bad. The state has to have a reasoned and consistent position murder. Too much time has been spent on here debating the legitimacy or otherwise of a few thousand killings, to ignore the tens of thousands.

    How can the medical fraternity not provide us this time frame?

  • Charles_Gould

    Anna Lo has been very sound on this issue.

  • paulG

    Charles, even though you’re not a woman, you are still allowed to have an opinion on the subject, and even express it, without necessarily deferring to Anna Lo.