In October 2013, Sarah Ewart braved the public gauntlet by speaking on the Stephen Nolan show of her experience as a pregnant woman carrying a foetus with fatal abnormalities. Few could find themselves unmoved by Ewart’s tragic story – made worse by archaic laws in Northern Ireland forcing her to travel to England to pay for abortion services.
Speaking to an audience that included an individual who would soon be convicted of harassing Marie Stopes director Dawn Purvis, Ewart argued strongly that other Northern Irish women should not be forced to go through the same healthcare ordeal she had experienced. As a result of the public outrage in response to the horrendous multiple traumas Ewart experienced, she was granted an audience with then Health Minister, Edwin Poots in Stormont. Following that, her story was instrumental in calling Justice Minister David Ford to action and ordering a public consultation on abortion in Northern Ireland.
Now in 2015, we have the results of that Department of Justice consultation on abortion. Minute change has been recommended to ease the suffering of those women who find out they are carrying a foetus with fatal abnormalities. Separately, the Human Rights Commission has been granted leave to pursue a judicial review of abortion law in Northern Ireland in the case of rape, incest or foetal abnormalities.
Compounded by statements of the ‘draconian’ laws in place in Northern Ireland from expert obstetricians such as maternal consultant in foetal medicine Dr Samina Dornan, it is clear that legislation change is the necessary route forward to ease the trauma of those women whose foetus is diagnosed as having fatal abnormalities. Change in law will also give protection to doctors and health workers providing support in these situations.
Hopes were high that these small changes in abortion law could be possible when on 22nd April 2015, First Minister Peter Robinson signalled that the DUP could have a free ‘vote of conscience’ in relation to the proposed law change. However, on 30th April on BBC The View, First Minister Peter Robinson quashed these hopes with his contradictive statement that any attempt to implement changes would be ‘doomed’. Mr Robinson instead advocated for ‘guidelines’ around existing law – an illogical impossibility given that current law does not recognise fatal foetal abnormalities.
On May 1st 2015, Jane Christie, mother of Sarah Ewart telephoned the Stephen Nolan radio show. Her tears and upset reverberated across the country, and the horrendous reality of the words of the First Minister became apparent. Women in Northern Ireland, living in our communities are suffering. Sitting in the BBC television studio on 30th April, did Peter Robinson think of the heartbreaking decisions that no happily expectant mother would ever want to make? Did he think of the packed bags and easyjet flights? Did he think of the lonely hotels where Northern Irish women are forced to stay before and after their abortion? Did he think of migrant women without travel visas? Or women who could not afford to pay for flights, for hotels, for their procedure and are forced to undergo the horrifying trauma of carrying a dying foetus to full term?
Were Peter Robinson’s comments a ploy to gain votes from the conservative, misogynistic voters that make up the backbone of his party? Alongside his ludicrous and bigoted comments regarding homosexuality on BBC The View, it seems that the DUP’s political stance has not evolved from isolating and oppressing women and minority groups. Paradoxically, given the similarities in legislation between the North and Republic of Ireland and the party’s vehement opposition to any suggestion of extending the 1967 Abortion Act, one wonders if the DUP have realised their stance on abortion is not only anti-Union, but befitting of an ultra-Catholic United Ireland?
Robinson and the DUP are not alone in their stance that denies even the most minimal change to existing abortion law. The SDLP’s Alasdair McDonnell’s sensationalist claim in January 2015 that, ‘nobody can predict that a foetus is not viable’ not only exposed McDonnell’s callous misogyny but also the arrogant manipulation of his position as G.P (not obstetrician) to impose his own personal views as a man upon women. Indeed, McDonnell’s restrictive views are not exceptional in the SDLP given their ‘total opposition’ to the extension of the 1967 Act. Even new ‘progressive’ faces such as West Tyrone’s MP-hopeful Daniel McCrossan share the belief that the current abortion law in Northern Ireland should remain unchanged.
The upcoming election aside, in Northern Irish politics it has become increasingly clear that a uniting bridge across the Nationalist/Unionist divide is the propagation of patriarchy and restriction of female bodily autonomy. The all-male ‘All Party Pro-Life’ group at Stormont contains MLA’s from the DUP, UUP and SDLP. This group shows how men in Northern Irish politics can be diametrically opposed in regards to the National Question, but can cooperate in solidarity to control women’s bodies. Alban Maginness and Paul Girvan’s joint attempt to outlaw the Marie Stopes centre in March 2013 is another example of Nationalist and Unionist men working together to deny women choice or autonomy.
With female political representation in Northern Ireland one of the lowest in Western Europe and instances of rampant sexism such as the Belfast Telegraph’s recent debasement of female politicians occupying mainstream media, the patriarchy pervades every element of Northern Irish life. Indeed, Malachi O’Doherty’s vociferous rejection of his rating of male and female electoral candidates as sexist suggests he felt his article should be read in isolation from the sexism, violence, unequal representation and treatment of women in the media and in general that pervades every element of every woman’s life. Similarly, Sinn Fein’s support of terminations in cases of fatal foetal abnormality cannot be examined as without contextualising the patriarchal attitudes espoused by their party line more broadly, especially the response to aspects of rape culture which was evident in their handling to Mairia Cahill’s rape allegations.
Northern Irish women live under a law that was created in 1861, restricts their choices and forbids bodily autonomy. The majority of the overwhelmingly male political representatives in Northern Ireland are happy to maintain this status-quo. How can there ever be abortion law change when women are so easily dismissed, segregated and spoken over? Without increased representation from female politicians, abortion in the case of fatal foetal abnormalities will continue to be seen as a religious or moral question, rather than as an urgent women’s health issue. The majority of our politicians are content to support a law from the nineteenth century that breaks the European Convention of Human Rights. More importantly, these politicians are content to swat aside women like Sarah Ewart who have shown true courage and solidarity with her fellow woman by taking such a brave public stance.
I will not forget the pained tears of a mother’s love heard on the Stephen Nolan show on 1st May 2015 as Jane Christie stood strong to support not only her daughter but the foetus lost to fatal abnormalities. Sarah Ewart and her mother are women to be proud of. Women must be empowered to enter politics, to speak and be heard. The patriarchal attitudes that unite many MLA’s across the political spectrum must be taken to task. Northern Ireland’s septic political arena must be cleaned out. Who better to take on this task than women.