Northern Ireland’s abortion statistics tell us nothing of the real situation for women there

The blame does not lie solely with the DUP. The rest of the UK has ignored these issues for years too

Caitlin Morrison
Wednesday 23 January 2019 18:36 GMT
DUP's Jim Wells compares abortions to the Holocaust

The latest statistics on abortion in Northern Ireland were published on Wednesday, showing that in 2016-17, 32 medical abortions and 12 terminations were recorded.

Of course, this does not tell the full story of abortion in Northern Ireland. In fact, it’s nowhere close.

On average, 28 women a week travel from Northern Ireland to England for an abortion, because UK laws on abortion don’t cross the Irish Sea.

In the six counties of Northern Ireland, it’s legal to get an abortion only if the mother’s life is at risk or there is a permanent or serious risk to her mental or physical health.

This means that abortion is not legal in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities, rape and incest.

Northern Ireland has become increasingly isolated from neighbouring countries over its abortion policy in recent years. England and Wales gave women more control over their own bodies with the Abortion Act in 1967, and the Republic of Ireland voted to repeal draconian abortion laws last year.

Northern Ireland’s abortion laws also diverge from the will of its own people. A YouGov poll carried out in October 2018 found that 75 per cent of people in Northern Ireland want the abortion law to change, while 65 per cent said abortion should not be a crime.

In a similar vein, what people want with regard to equal marriage has long been ignored – polling shows that more than two-thirds of adults in NI support it.

Meanwhile, the DUP is staunchly opposed to both equal marriage and abortion, and have so far resisted any attempts to change the laws around these issues.

The hypocrisy at play here makes the injustice even harder to stand.

The party pushing for a hard Brexit on the grounds that it won’t accept any divergence between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK is happy to maintain the status quo of divergence when it comes to women and the LGBT+ community.

But the blame does not lie solely with the DUP. The rest of the UK has ignored these issues for years too.

The cause of abortion rights in Northern Ireland has been given something of a kickstart in recent months, in the wake of the landslide Repeal victory in Ireland, but there’s nothing like the same support. MPs called for reform of the law last June, but that’s pretty much all that happened. Downing Street kicked the can over to Stormont, which remains at a standstill – and it doesn’t look like it’s coming to an end any time soon.

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Meanwhile, the groundswell of support from UK celebrities and journalists that sprang up after the Irish referendum has faded away even more quickly than it appeared.

This will come as no surprise to people from Northern Ireland, to be bleak but honest.

Issues and problems that would set the news agenda if they occurred in England go unnoticed when they happen in Northern Ireland.

A bomb, an actual bomb, was set off in the centre of Derry last Saturday, and it didn’t make it onto any national newspaper’s front page on Sunday.

In many ways it’s not surprising, nor is it difficult to understand why this might be the case. After all, ignorance is bliss – but only for the ignorant, or wilfully ignoring.

As we hurtle towards Brexit, yet another policy that the majority of Northern Irish voters don’t agree with, the unfair laws and lack of representation is getting harder to stomach. Depending on what happens on 29 March, it could become even more difficult to bring about any meaningful change to the law in Northern Ireland.

That’s why we need to call out “statistics” like the ones published today, purporting to inform us about abortion in Northern Ireland, when really they represent a mere fraction of the real situation.

Women in Northern Ireland are being failed on a daily basis by the antique laws that take away their bodily autonomy, and it must be stopped.

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