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19 July 2018

Both Lives Matter in Westminster

On Wednesday, 18 July seven women from Northern Ireland travelled over to Westminster to speak to members of parliament and the House of Lords about abortion law in Northern Ireland. Their message was different to the narrative that is most often heard: the narrative that women in Northern Ireland need increased access to abortion. In this delicate political moment, they came to share their experiences and to ask parliamentarians at Westminster to respect devolution. 

The women were part of a delegation of the Both Lives Matter campaign and included women from right across the political community, including a Social Democratic and Labour Party councilor, a former Sinn Fein councilor, and a Democratic Unionist Party member of the legislative assembly. The group also included a representative from a group of women who regret their abortions and someone from LIFE, a pregnancy care charity.

Both Lives Matter is a collaborative movement of people and organisations from across the political and community divides in Northern Ireland. The Evangelical Alliance and CARE are founding members of the campaign, but it includes people of different faiths and none. Together they reject a harmful way of thinking, which pitches women against their unborn children. Standing in solidarity with women in pregnancy crisis, they are working towards a better story than abortion – a more human way to live and be together. 

 Ever since the Irish referendum on abortion, some MPs have been campaigning for more liberal abortion laws in Northern Ireland. A few have even called for a free vote in the House of Commons on a proposed amendment to the Domestic Abuse Bill. This would see a new abortion framework imposed on Northern Ireland, which would be even less restrictive than the current law in Great Britain. 

The group provided MPs with an opportunity to hear from some of the many women across Northern Ireland who do not want the current abortion law to be changed. They didn’t claim to speak for every woman in Northern Ireland, but did present a vision of a people and place that has chosen a different path than abortion at will. 

 The women had three key messages: 

1. Don’t override devolution 

Northern Ireland’s decision not to embrace the 1967 Abortion Act was made by the then Parliament of Northern Ireland. This was respected throughout Direct Rule and abortion was formally devolved in 2009. 

 Moreover, the democratically elected Northern Ireland Assembly is the UK legislature to have debated this matter most recently. In 2016 it debated its abortion law and considered amendments but chose not to amend it in any way. The Northern Ireland law consequently has the most recent democratic mandate of abortion law anywhere else in the UK. 

 In making these points it is recognised that the Northern Ireland Assembly is currently suspended and cannot change the law. However, this does not change the fact that it would be constitutionally outrageous to overrule devolution on this very sensitive issue at this very sensitive moment in Northern Irish politics.

2. Northern Irish law has saved lives 

 The group also highlighted the fact that over the course of the last 50 years since the introduction of the 1967 Abortion Act in England and Wales, Northern Ireland has provided a unique case study. It is possible to compare the difference between two jurisdictions where abortion is widely available and where it is restricted. Both Lives Matter researched this and produced a report which conservatively estimated that 100,000 people are alive today in Northern Ireland who would not have been if the 1967 Abortion Act had been introduced. This accounted for all the women who travelled for abortions in England and Wales. On releasing this research, 14 complaints were made to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) which tested our data for five months and appointed an independent health statistician to review our claim. You can read the report on the ASA’s website here.  This is an important longitudinal comparison between two modern Western jurisdictions with very different laws on abortion. 

3. There is a better story than abortion 

The idea that we measure freedom and equality for women by their ability to end the lives of their unborn children at will needs to change. From the simple and human starting point that both lives matter, there is surely common ground to be found in creating a better story for women and babies than abortion. 

 A ComRes poll carried out in Great Britain in May 2017 found that 70 per cent of women would like the current time limit for abortion to be lowered and only 1 per cent of people want the abortion time limit raised to birth. (ComRes interviewed 2,008 British adults online between 12 and 14 May 2017. Data was weighted to be representative of all British adults. ComRes is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules.) 

 We live in a very different age to when the 1967 Abortion Act was introduced, an age of 4D scans and where women have many more rights and protections when it comes to employment and discrimination over sex or pregnancy. If the problems leading women to abortion are lack of choice, social support, poverty or education then let’s work to change these conditions. Ending a human life is destructive and lacks creativity at the most human level. 

 It’s time to stop measuring women’s rights by their ability to end human life. This is anti-equality and anti-humanity. If both lives matter then women and the children of tomorrow deserve better than abortion.  .