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The WC Is Not Out Of Order
A contentious political issue may yet unite traditions and borders
Eamonn McCann, 07 Dec 2000
The fact that the Women s Coalition in the North voted last month to change its policy on abortion or, more accurately, to put an abortion policy in place where previously there had been none was more significant for the future of politics on the island than sparse media coverage may have suggested.
At its annual conference in Belfast on November 18th, the party decided by a large majority to back the demand for the extension of the British 1967 Abortion Act to the North. Previously, the line had been to declare that since Coalition members held conflicting views on the issue, the party itself could take no clear stance.
It was this approach which, in June, led a plainly embarrassed Monica McWilliams to tell the Stormont Assembly that since "we are all confused" there was no point trying to define any policy at all. Once the women's group had stated this position, others, including some who we had hoped knew better, rushed in PUP man David Ervine's phrase to "hide behind the women's petticoats", and dodge the issue. They won't have this cover for cowardice in future.
The WC decision will, hopefully, have repercussions for the alignment of the parties towards the abortion issue in the South, too.
The Coalition's new policy acknowledges the right of members to hold diverse views on an individual level", but is firm that the party itself "cannot decline to take a clear policy position .
A number of delegates professed themselves "pro-life" and explained that they could see no circumstances in which they would personally condone an abortion: nevertheless, they supported the right of others to make their own decisions in accordance with their own consciences.
If a woman in the North does decide to terminate a pregnancy so the inescapable logic ran legal and medical facilities should be in place for her to exercise that choice at home rather than be forced into furtive travel to Great Britain. It was on this basis that the successful argument for a policy change was built.
It is an argument which ought to find equal favour with democratically-minded people in the South, as the likelihood looms of another abortion referendum.
The Woman s Coalition is now the second party in the Northern Assembly (the other is the Progressive Unionist Party: has there ever been an outfit more criss-crossed with contradiction?) to break the phoney consensus whereby conservatives of both Orange and Green colourations have been able regularly, ritually, to intone that on abortion at least, all sides are united...
In fact, the legal situation in the North achieves the unlikely distinction of being more incongruous and less honest than the constitutional chaos south of the border. In the South, at least it s acknowledged there s a mess to be dealt with. In the North, until now, politics has been in point-blank denial..
Some of the abortions currently carried out in Northern hospitals are almost certainly illegal. Meanwhile, women are compelled to travel to Britain for abortions which would be legal in the North.
A measure of the confusion came in a 1993 survey of NI gynaecologists. One consultant would carry out an abortion for a woman who had been raped but not on account of foetal handicap. Another practised the exact opposite. Both believed they were acting in accordance with the law.
Abortions on ground of foetal handicap are performed in a number of Northern hospitals at the moment free, on the NHS although there is no obvious legal provision for this. Other hospitals Altnagelvin in Derry for example refuse to carry out abortions in any circumstances even when it's beyond argument that there is legal provision.
The relevant law was set out in four High Court rulings between 1993 and 1995. These laid down that abortion is legal when medical opinion holds that the continuation of a pregnancy would leave the woman a mental and/or physical wreck essentially, the position in Britain prior to the 1967 Act.
This position is consonant with Northern public opinion as measured by two Ulster Marketing Surveys opinion polls in 1993 and 1994 which found that three out of four people favoured abortion being available when there was a risk to women's physical or mental health.
The situation is, then, that a sizable proportion of Northern women who travel to England for abortions could legally have their abortions at home, and that a majority of local people wouldn't object to this happening.
This provides the basis for a broad campaign for the extension of the 1967 Act.
In the meantime, it is open to Stormont Health Minister Bairbre de Brun to put the medical profession straight about what's permissible and what's not, even without a change in the law. She can do this by issuing guidelines to the four area health authorities. This would end the anomaly whereby, for example, a mentally disturbed 14-year-old pregnant as a result of abuse is refused an abortion in the North despite it being crystal clear that this would be perfectly legal.
Will de Brun confront this hypocrisy? Or will she back off again in the face of the bigots' bluster? We shall see. Some of us aren't holding our breaths.
Whatever move, if any, the minister makes, the policy change by the Women's Coalition has nudged the question of abortion further into the mainstream.
Abortion is, of course, a divisive issue. It divides those who want to move forward to create a modern tolerant society where women's rights and wishes are respected from those who hanker after the old days of baseless certainty and silent screaming. This is to say that the abortion issue transcends sectarianism, invites people to identify themselves in politics other than by reference to the community they were born into.
One of the reasons many activists in the North privately espouse a pro-choice position but refuse to push their parties to face the issue head-on is that they don't want to disrupt existing patterns of political allegience. A party out to present itself, rather than a rival, as the authentic voice of a particular community will, naturally, be reluctant to take a sharp-edged position on an issue which divides the community.
The abortion issue is not an aspect of "the Northern problem" but an element in its solution.
And just as it has the capacity to generate a Northern campaign across the divide, so it has the potential to generate political action across the border.
Those presently piecing together a united-front campaign for abortion rights for women in the South should take note that the same arguments are increasingly on the agenda in the North.
Might not a single campaign across the island illuminate a way forward for all who want to leave darkness