by Deborah Dawson, contributor
Recently appointed Minister for Health, Jim Wells caused controversy when he stated in an interview with BBC News NI that he will allow his religious beliefs to influence his approach to policies on abortion. His comments have heightened discussion about abortion policy in the province, which differs from the rest of the UK.
Unlike the rest of the United Kingdom, the 1967 Abortion Act does not apply to women in Northern Ireland. Instead, policy dates back to the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act and the 1945 Criminal Justice Act, which carries a life sentence for illegal terminations. Legal terminations include those due to the mother’s life being at risk, or if permanent damage to an individual’s mental or physical health is detected. According to the BBC, more than 1000 women annually travel to other parts of the UK in order to obtain abortions.
The law established here does not allow abortion in cases of foetal abnormality, or in cases of sexual violence, rape or incest. Wells expressed this opinion during Radio Ulster’s Steven Nolan Show in 2012: “That is a tragic and difficult situation but should the ultimate victim of that terrible act [rape] – which is the unborn child – should he or she also be punished for what has happened by having their life terminated? No.”
Wells goes on to say “these instances [demand for abortion under circumstances of rape] are extremely rare in Northern Ireland”. Regardless of the rarity of the situation, there have been reported instances of this stance being highly damaging to victims of rape.
In the Republic of Ireland this summer, despite The Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act (January 2014), a woman was denied the right to an abortion despite having been raped and at risk of suicide. After going on hunger strike, the child was delivered prematurely at 25 weeks and put into the care of the state. The woman in question could not travel to seek abortion elsewhere because of her immigration status, but given the ruling by the High Court in London denying Northern Irish women the right to free NHS abortions, one does not have to look hard to see similar obstacles standing in the way of women this side of the border.
Amnesty International focuses directly on NI in their paper, ‘Guidance on the Termination of Pregnancy in Northern Ireland,’ stating that abortion to prevent physical or mental health issues and in cases of sexual violence, rape or incest is “in line with international human rights standards”. Policies which do not permit abortion under these terms, as exists in NI, are in direct opposition to human rights laws and are highly damaging, as seen in ROI this August. The impact of religious views influencing abortion policy is dangerous, as it abdicates the individual’s right of choice.
Since Wells’ comment, Justice Minister, David Ford, has launched a Public Consultation which will continue through January 2015. Reactions to the consultation have been mixed but, as a recent poll published by Amnesty shows, 70% of NI agrees to change in abortion policy. This is corroborated by similar figures coming from the rest of the UK in support of change.
These figures deem the religious principles behind current abortion laws to be out of touch and not representative of the voting public. However, should majority or popular opinion be the deciding factor when policy is already in direct violation of human rights laws? Surely the fact politicians allow religion to shape policy should be enough of a disservice to instigate change.