Abortion pressure continues slowly, slowly

Two interesting blasts from non-natives in the abortion debate have appeared in – can you guess?  Yes! –  in the Guardian and the Independent. In the Indy, London-based Siobhan Fenton has been combing the statistics just out, to find that  that 828 women who had abortions in England and Wales  last year gave Northern Ireland addresses and 3754  were recorded as coming from the Republic. Almost certainly these figures are an underestimate, the real NI figure being around 2000, according to local estimates. What an enormous figure this is, shamelessly to ignore and export at such a cost in terms  of  trauma and money. However, the reporter accepts the legal status quo under devolution without challenge:

 Of course, the priority of English doctors should be the healthcare and wellbeing of English women, especially as funding cuts put greater strain on services.

This is not quite the obvious point it seems.  It’s true that the “National” Health Service is devolved and so abortions are set to remain illegal in NI except in cases of serious foetal abnormality. But this cuts across the ethic of universal provision that was the service’s founding doctrine. And as we share the same tax base throughout the UK (though rates are set to vary in Scotland), the moral case for charging an NI woman for an abortion in England and Wales is less clear. A local case is going to appeal but I  wouldn’t  bet the house  on radical change being the outcome.

Meanwhile social change continues at a pace that an Arctic glacier in these days of global warming  could not hope to match.   I’m not  clear either whether David Ford’s’ feeble proposal for modifying the local laws to allow abortion in case of foetal abnormality was  put forward in a spirit of collective responsibility – i.e. based  on what the Executive as a whole would finally accept – or was the Alliance party’s preferred position. Collective responsibility being a very delicate flower, I rather fear it’s the latter. Even so it  required a rare coalition of Sinn Fein, Green and Alliance  to block  the  DUP’s counter move in the Assembly. This is what passes for  our “progressive alliance”.

An Amnesty International report on abortion in the Republic has helped to stimulate wider coverage after the gay marriage referendum. The Guardian columnist Suzanne Moore goes to the nub of the case which is about a  woman’s right to her own  body. The counter argument still prevails, that another life’s rights are also  to be considered and that its future too is the proper  business of society, including males.

If Ireland can have gay marriage, when is it going to legalise abortion? Amnesty is now running a brilliant campaign on this issue. This is absolutely necessary, but what it does is show the glitch in the matrix of liberal thinking. It is easier for people to accept gay marriage than the reproductive rights of women. There is not an easy progression here….

It is as if the fundamental right of women to control our own bodies is still somehow up for negotiation…

The way this is done is by framing abortion as a grave moral issue. Homosexuality used to be framed this way too, as simply wrong, but something has shifted. There used to be an understanding between women and gay men that we were in it together. Some of that has fractured.

But marriage is a way of tying everyone into the system, whereas women’s right to choose is still a threat to it. Let’s face it: a big gay wedding is easier to sell than the relief that so many feel when they have terminated a pregnancy.

So the mark of modernity, of where we are “at” as a society, is not simply whether we “accept” homosexuality: it remains centred on women’s bodily autonomy. The culture wars here, in Ireland and in the US will only be won when those in power “accept” that they have no business in my uterus. Or yours.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London