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25 September 2014

The who and where of abortion provision in Northern Ireland

The who and where of abortion provision in Northern Ireland

Abortion is a subject which comes up time and time again in Northern Ireland. We have written about the issue on many occasions and make no apologies for writing about it again. The way we respond to the silent plight of the unborn speaks loudly of the value we place human dignity.

The 1967 Abortion Act does not extend to Northern Ireland. A termination of pregnancy here can only be lawful where the continuance of the pregnancy threatens the life of the woman, or would adversely affect her physical or mental health in a manner that is real and serious and permanent or long term.

This unique law has persevered in the midst of abortion liberalisation all across the west. And so it's no surprise that there are both continual calls for change, and continual concerns that any such change would eventually lead to effective abortion on demand.

Just last week however, the Justice Committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly completed a consultation on a change which most supporters of the law agreed with. The proposed clause, an amendment to the Justice Bill 2014 ('Ending the life of an unborn child'), sought to restrict the location where abortions could be carried out in Northern Ireland to Health Trust property only. Currently abortions can be carried out in private health clinics and premises outside of the health service as long as they comply with the law. However, there is no system of regulation outside the health service to ensure that the law is being kept. The aim of this clause is to make sure that abortions here continue to be carried out legally and that the number of abortions and grounds for them can be recorded.

This proposed change to the law raises a number of issues which we explore in more detail in our consultation response.

However, perhaps the biggest issue is that of when the state can, or should, restrict the provision of certain 'services' to their citizens. The goes right to the heart of law, governance and the authority of a state to declare certain actions legal or illegal. In this case, abortion is permitted but the proposed law seeks to limit it to state provision only.

Our starting point is one of caution when the state seeks to restrict certain activities to itself. This can have huge consequences for personal freedom and choice. Generally there must be very good grounds to prevent the private or charitable sectorfrom engaging in certain activities. However we believe that the act of ending a life is sufficiently distinctive to make it a special case. This is not a knee operation or cosmetic surgery, it is not cancer treatment or hospice care. This is a deliberate act to end life. Comparisons could be drawn to assisted suicide as a similar issue involving medical legal ethics, life and death, freedom and compassion. Who should steward this God-originating power over life and death?

In England and Wales in 2013, 64 per cent of abortions were carried out through private providers such as Marie Stopes. These abortions are largely funded by the NHS. In America and other parts of the world the provision of abortion 'services' on demand has led to a growth in the abortion industry. Despitemany providers being structured as not-for-profit organisations this is a global multi-billion dollar industry making substantial financial gain from ending the lives of unborn children. Coupled with this is extensive political lobbying and cultural engineering which has increased the market place under the guise of 'reproductive rights'.

Over 99 per cent of abortions in England and Wales are not for reasons that would be legal in Northern Ireland. In cases where the woman's life and health are not in danger this industry symbolises the ultimate consumerisation of humanity –offering the consumer the right to choose whether another human being lives or dies. Again this is not about contraception, maternal or sexual health, this is about ending the life of another human being.

There are currently no circumstances under the law here where abortion can be provided on the grounds of something being 'wrong' with the unborn child. Instead, woven into the legal power to provide abortions in Northern Ireland comes the legal responsibility to protect the life of the mother and her unborn child. As our law currently stands, we believe this responsibility is best held by the Health and Social Care Trusts and not those actively campaigning to change the law here for a questionable ideological gain or to open up a new market.

On a final footnote, the Justice Minister is expected to announce a consultation shortly on changing the law to allow for abortion in cases of life-limiting disability, incest and rape. This would mark a significant shift in the law and culture of abortion here. We will be responding to this is due course and providing resources for others to advocate alongside us for the dignity and life of the unborn.