There are proposals to use the Human Tissue and Embryology Bill – which will be put before parliament in the next few months – to amend the Abortion Act and finally extend it to Northern Ireland.
The response of many people in Northern Ireland will be “about time!” But Socialist Worker readers will be unlikely to have heard this response.
Coverage of Northern Ireland tends to concentrate on the sexual dinosaurs in the mainstream parties.
What most people in Britain see are the two sides, Orange and Green, fighting with each other. The two main parties – Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Fein – disagree on most things but unite to oppose abortion.
New Labour politicians then say that Labour Party policy to extend the Act to Northern Ireland cannot be carried out because “no one in Northern Ireland supports abortion” and they will not “impose” it.
This is nonsense. Almost 40 women a week travel out of Northern Ireland to access abortion services. Research tells us that each of these will tell, on average, four to five people before they travel. Add to these the people they tell after they return and you realise that half the adult population of Northern Ireland knows someone who has had an abortion.
And despite how the politicians like to present it, people in Northern Ireland have sex lives very similar to those in Britain.
It’s true that the overwhelming majority vote for one or other of the confessional parties which seems to best represent “their” community – because that’s all that Northern Ireland elections are fought on.
But that doesn’t mean that ordinary people live their lives like Paisley or the Pope say they should.
Belfast city has the highest rate of teenage pregnancies in the UK. More than half (58 percent) of all births in Belfast last year were to unmarried parents, with more than three quarters registering the birth jointly.
Young, and not-so-young people who go out for a night will usually hope to hook up with someone and have sex. And no matter how responsible they are in relation to safe sex, contraception will fail some of them.
The question of what happens next depends on the class they come from. If they are well-off, they can easily raise between £700 and £1,000 for a private abortion in Britain. If they are part of the more than 50 percent of Northern Ireland’s society that is on, or below, the poverty line, they may be forced to continue the pregnancy.
Some will try to cause an abortion themselves. Some 11 percent of Northern Ireland’s GPs say they have seen the results of amateur abortions. Others will despair and kill, or try to kill, themselves.
Despite Labour’s pro-choice policy, Northern Ireland’s GPs are not even allowed to refer desperate women for NHS abortions in England.
Leaving abortion to the Stormont Assembly is not a solution.
Last week, it voted to approve a DUP motion calling on the minister for health not to issue guidelines to clarify the Offences Against the Person Act that dates back to 1861, on the spurious grounds that it would make abortion more widely available.
New guidelines would have ensured that abortion was available to save women’s lives, but not in the cases of rape or fetal abnormality.
Since the Belfast Agreement of 1998, the constitutional position of Northern Ireland as part of the UK has been guaranteed – Ian Paisley says this will last for 100 years, while Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein, agrees this is the case for at least 20 years.
So pressure needs to be put on Westminster MPs to give women in Northern Ireland the same right to abortion as women in the rest of the UK.
Of course there will be a backlash from the fundamentalists. The religious right, both Protestant and Catholic, previously tried to mobilise against civil partnerships for gay and lesbian couples and not only didn’t succeed but failed to maintain a credible campaign of protest.
They will try to make an even louder fuss about abortion. But they know that many women in Northern Ireland already see abortion as an option. They are aware, too, that their success in so far preventing the extension of the Act has resulted only in preventing poorer women, who cannot afford to travel to England, from ending intolerable pregnancies.
The issue comes down not to religion, but to a question of one law for the rich and one for the poor.
Forty years after the NHS started providing abortions in Britain, isn’t it time that women in Northern Ireland – who pay the same taxes as anywhere else in Britain – started to have the same access as their sisters to a full health service?
Goretti Horgan is a member of the Alliance for Choice in Northern Ireland
Download a PDF of Goretti's pamphlet Abortion: Why Irish women must have the right to choose [156kb]