The Department of Justice in N Ireland issued a call for members of the public to discuss whether abortion should be allowed here in cases of ‘lethal’ foetal abnormality or for pregnancy following rape or incest, as I indicated here. The DoJ indicated that they did not wish to open the debate around abortion beyond these limits.
The DoJ has now published the findings, and David Ford, the Minister, stated:
My department has just completed a consultation exercise on the very sensitive and emotive issue of the criminal law on abortion and I have today published, on the Department of Justice website, a summary of the responses.
This consultation has probably engaged the community more than any other in recent times. Much was written and said about the proposals, some of it inaccurate and some of it misleading. I have always tried to be clear that these proposals were for limited change in very specific circumstances.
The consultation asked for views on two specific areas where abortion might be considered: where there is a fatal fetal abnormality, and where pregnancy results from a sexual crime. I also sought views on the inclusion of a clause to allow for a right of conscientious objection.
The responses to the consultation came in a number of formats, from well-reasoned written arguments, either for or against change, to written and electronic petitions. In addition to members of the public engaging with us, a large number of organisations, representing a broad swathe of opinion, responded.
After full and careful consideration of the evidence submitted, I have concluded that to change the law along the lines outlined in the consultation paper is the right thing to do. In the limited circumstances of a fetal abnormality which is likely to cause death either before birth, during birth or in an initial period after birth, and where no treatment other than palliative care could be offered to improve the chances of survival, my view is that the health and wellbeing of the woman must take priority and that the law should be clear and offer certainty.
I therefore intend to proceed to ask the Executive for its approval to bring forward legislation to the Assembly which would allow for termination of pregnancy in these tragic cases.
I am also proposing to allow for the inclusion of a conscience clause in the legislation, but will not proceed with changes relating to pregnancy resulting from sexual crime.
I recognise this subject will continue to be of interest to many people and at all times I will make as much information as possible publicly available.
The full responses are available here.
That is, he accepts that abortion should be available for fatal (lethal) abnormality, but not for pregnancy following rape, and will seek to bring forth legislation to this effect.
One criticism of this public consultation was that he wasn’t paying attention to what the majority of respondents said; the DoJ’s response was that the many organisations who did respond positively were speaking on behalf of very many people (here).
There are indeed problems with public consultations. Sometimes the questions asked don’t allow for a proper, full discussion of views—you may remember the referendum on the voting system some years ago, when the choice was between first-past-the-post and the alternative-vote. I’m sure that neither appealed to many, and here in Ireland we are well used to STV; that simply wasn’t an option.
There’s another problem with public consultations. Focus groups are very ‘in’ these days, instant feedback on politicians’ performance, which can then be modified to suit the voters. Is this really an appropriate way for politicians to act? Policies made on the basis of soundbites and feedback?
Are our politicians leaders or followers? Do they attempt to mould public opinion or are they just in thrall to it? Are they reasonable or unreasonable people?
The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.
—George Bernard Shaw
Robert Campbell is a retired surgeon.