A U-Turn on Abortion?

David Ford (Alliance), the Justice Minister in the NI Assembly, issued a consultation (which I wrote about here) about reform of abortion law in N Ireland, though he restricted it to fatal (lethal) foetal abnormality and pregnancy after rape and incest.

Following this, he issued his recommendations (which I discussed here), including:

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.

It’s quite clear that he intended to bring forth legislation to permit abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality. Of course, such a change would not demand that a woman carrying such a foetus must abort it. (‘If you don’t like it, don’t have one.’)

Peter Robinson (DUP), the First Minister in the NI Executive, made a statement during an interview on BBCNI TV last night, indicating that he did not think that new legislation was appropriate, favouring rather ‘guidelines’. Mr Ford was taken by surprise by this. The BBC has a report of what happened (here), with a short summary of the legal position at present.

Laws are by necessity written in legalistic language, and ‘guidelines’ set out to explain what is permissible and what is not permissible in more easily understandable English. Guidelines cannot alter the law.

Before 1861, abortion prior to ‘quickening’ (around 16-18 weeks gestation) was not criminalised under common law.

The Offences against the Person Act 1861 forms the basis of abortion law here. It makes it a criminal offence both to perform an abortion and for a woman to undergo one. There are no exceptions; however, there is some ‘wriggle room’ available in N Ireland. A medical abortion, that is one using a combination of pills is apparently not illegal—it is only available up to about 9 weeks gestation; neither is an abortion when the mother’s physical or mental health is seriously endangered.

Some might say that carrying a foetus with a fatal abnormality might well seriously endanger a woman’s health. Mr Robinson’s proposed guidelines might try to take account of this, though it is difficult to see how these could apply to all such cases.

The DUP describe themselves as ‘socially conservative’, and what appear to be their espoused positions on abortion, equal marriage and the criminalisation of payment for sexual services would confirm this.

Social conditions were rather different in 1861; education of boys and girls wasn’t wholly widespread; girls couldn’t go to university; children used to work long hours in dangerous conditions in factories; little boys had to climb chimneys to clean them; there were no labour-saving household appliances; armies of young women were in domestic service, and the age of consent was 12 years.

I cannot really imagine the most socially conservative amongst us would want to return to these ‘traditional’ values. Yet some of our politicians want to keep other (sexual) mores as if nothing had changed in the last 150 years.

Update: Since the above was written, a further article has appeared on the BBC website, here. In it, Mr E Poots, the former Minister of Health, confirms that it would require a change in the law for abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality for the procedure to be lawful; and that guidelines cannot alter the present situation.