Please note: the Green Party treats abortion as an issue of individual conscience. Opinions expressed on this page are therefore my own and do not necessarily reflect party policy or the views of any other Green Party member.
The media storm generated by news of the arrival of Marie Stopes International in Belfast has generated more heat than light.
As so often when these matters are discussed, any sensible debate has been drowned out by excessively emotive language, misinformation and conflation of what are, at heart, three separate issues.
1: A private, fee charging (albeit non-profit making) organisation is to provide services in Belfast that are, or ought to be, available free of charge on the NHS. I am no fan of private medicine and would not necessarily see this as a positive development. However…
2. The programme director, Dawn Purvis, claims that the service is necessary because women and men alike are unable to access the sexual and reproductive health services to which they are legally entitled through the NHS. This may be due in some cases to very long waiting times for treatment, in others to an excessive narrow interpretation of the law governing access to abortion in Northern Ireland that leads trusts to refuse to provide treatment in circumstances in which it would be perfectly legal to do so.
From this perspective, anything that fills the gap should receive a qualified welcome, although the long term solution must be to ensure that all trusts have the resources and the confidence in the legal position to offer prompt access to sexual health services to the maximum extent permitted by law. To this end, it would be useful if the Minister of Health finally ordered publication of long-awaited guidance on the law on abortion.
3. Neither of these issues actually have anything to do with the question of whether the law on abortion in Northern Ireland should be liberalised, although that is what has taken up the bulk of the airtime. For my part, it seems clear that a woman should have the right to choose what happens to her own body and that those who are uncomfortable with abortion should not have the right to impose their point of view on those who feel otherwise.
We have a devolved Assembly in Northern Ireland and do not have to follow exactly the same route in Great Britain in this field of policy, as in many others (although we should be meeting our obligations under European human rights law). Many of our current politicians claim there is no appetite for change. However, awareness of the current legal position in Northern Ireland (essentially, that there must be a very serious risk to the health of the woman for abortion to be permitted) is extremely low.
In my experience, many people – including members of parties that have opposed the extension of the Abortion Act to cover Northern Ireland – believe abortion to be acceptable in more circumstances than would currently be legal. With 1,000 or more travelling to Great Britain for treatment every year, one could argue that EasyJet and Stena Line know better what women in Northern Ireland think about abortion than does Jim Allister.
Those who oppose a woman’s right to choose like to call themselves pro-life. But to deny access to safe, legal abortion services is to attack a woman’s right to life. Where abortion is illegal or highly restricted, abortions are still carried out but not always in a safe environment and sometimes with fatal consequences. The number of illegal abortions in Northern Ireland may be kept low by our proximity to states with a more liberal regime, but no civilised society should be reliant on accident of geography to protect the health of its citizens.