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09 July 2015

The other side....

The other side....

Dawn McAvoy, researcher Northern Ireland, continues our series on abortion

I went along to an event in Belfast on Monday 29 June called "International perspectives on Women’s Health and Justice". It was organised by the African Caribbean Support Organisation NI, Belfast Feminist Network and Alliance for Choice. The guest speaker was international activist Daniela Draghici, who gave a presentation focussed on abortion in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. This was followed by a panel which included representatives from the three organising groups. Questions were then taken from the floor about Northern Ireland.

I attended to hear from individuals who would be approaching these issues from a very different viewpoint to my own, for whom abortion is integral to family planning and reproductive and sexual health rights.  I wanted to hear them speak, I wanted to hear why they felt as they did, and I wanted to hear their stories. I hoped that there would be some common ground between us, particularly regarding the improvement of life opportunities for women and girls, in the access to good education and health care provision.

In her presentation, Daniela Draghici told harrowing tales of growing up in Romania under Caucescu. Of state sanctioned population control, where women were told it was their patriotic duty to bear children and were incentivised, coerced and controlled into doing so. For the majority of the population there was no access to contraceptives and no sex education. Just under 10,000 women and girls died from having illegal, unsafe abortions and approximately 25,000 unwanted children were abandoned to Romania’s orphanages. Abortion was seen as the only means of controlling fertility and I can understand how in circumstances like these, women would no longer see pregnancy as a gift and a blessing.

Today in this bloc of 30 countries abortion remains the most common means of fertility control, in part due to lack of access to and information about, other methods of family planning. However this culture of abortion is being challenged both by the State and by the Church which is regaining power and voice. Here comparisons were made with Northern Ireland; the increasing regulation of abortion was heavily criticised along with what were described as aggressive US style pro-life strategies. The speaker accused the Church of being condemnatory and irrelevant. There was no acceptance that any of these challenges to a culture of abortion were necessary. Indeed the speaker celebrated the fact that a pregnancy crisis care centre was prevented from opening in one country.

The Q&A session looked specifically at reproductive health and justice in Northern Ireland. The following gives a flavour of the topics and narrative of discussion. As in Central & Eastern Europe, the church and State (it was inferred that it’s hard to separate the two) have far too much to say regarding women’s fertility. Without free access to abortion, it doesn’t matter what the rest of our family planning services are like, women in Northern Ireland are oppressed. Lack of access to abortion in certain circumstances was described as inhumane and cruel and in fact torture. Our bodies are controlled by a patriarchal state and we have limited access to information and education. Where there is sex education in school, it is often biased, misinformed, judgmental and directive and too often delivered by faith based groups.  Northern Ireland was also compared to South Africa under apartheid and the supposition was advanced that like the Afrikaner, for Protestant women pregnancy is being used as a means of population control, to maintain levels of power and control in Northern Ireland.

Really? The majority of those present were not originally from Northern Ireland, which is only worth noting because it perhaps goes some way to explaining why the Northern Ireland that was represented at the event was completely unrecognisable to me. Part of me didn’t even want to grace the accusations with a reaction. But perhaps in response to the charges levelled above, it would be good to define exactly what reproductive rights are and then look again at Northern Ireland.

In an attempt to address high rates of maternal and infant mortality, gender discrimination and violence directed at women and girls, resulting in limited life chances particularly in developing countries, there was global consensus at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development, that family planning was a human right. Principle 8 of this document states that, “all couples and individuals have the basic right to decide freely and responsibly the number and spacing of their children and to have the information, education and means to do so.” It also says however that “in no case is abortion to be promoted as a method of family planning”, and in fact, good quality family planning services which would include counselling and affordable, accessible and available contraceptives, were “integral to the efforts to reduce recourse to abortion.”

In Northern Ireland all of these family planning services are provided by a mix of state and charitable organisations and couples and individuals have access to them all. That’s not to say that there isn’t room for improvement but what a privilege.

Regarding abortion, the law in Northern Ireland balances very carefully the right to life of both the mother and the unborn child. Abortion in Northern Ireland is legislated for but in very specific circumstances, to save the life of the mother or to preserve her physical or mental health where the threat is deemed to be real and serious, long-term or permanent.

It is common for Northern Ireland to be set within a backward and controlling religious narrative because of these laws. But in reality our laws mean that the abortion to birth rate for NI is 1:28,  just to be clear that's one abortion for every 28 live births. Compare that to Europe where it is 1:3 and even England and Wales where it is 1:4. This figure takes into account those women (approx. 800) who travel from Northern Ireland every year to England and Wales to seek an abortion outside the laws of Northern Ireland.

Looking at the definition of reproductive rights as described above, and the provision of services in Northern Ireland we should celebrate what is provided here as progressive and life-affirming for women and children precisely because we don’t have unlimited access to abortion.  I believe that in fact society here is much closer to the ICPD ideal and the subsequent delivery goals as outlined in the UNFPA’s “Choice not Chance 2010-2020”.

At the Evangelical Alliance, we continue to advocate for the life, health and well-being of society as a whole. We believe that every human being is a divine image-bearer. We believe that we are made for relationship with God and with one another. We believe that with rights come responsibilities. We have called for the publication of abortion guidelines for our healthcare professionals, for better pregnancy crisis care, including access to counselling services and tailored pathways of care including peri-natal hospice care. We also commend organisations who provide excellent relationship and sex education to schools and youth groups. But there is always room for improvement.

We want to see world class pregnancy care book-ended between world leading RSE provision and government policies which are family-proofed, acknowledging that stronger families make for a stronger more prosperous society. We agree that every effort must be made to ensure that there is no need for recourse to abortion.

There is a clear ideological agenda within some groups to normalise, decriminalise and de-stigmatise abortion. For these groups it’s not about foetal abnormality or sexual crime, neither is it about good family planning or sex education provision. Abortion was reduced to a woman’s right to freely choose and to be free of control. Justice is autonomy - having the freedom to decide to do with your own body what you want and when you want. Nothing else would ever be enough. Sadly there is no recognition of the unborn child at all nor did I see evidence of this agenda being about the very best compassionate care for women. In a cruel irony, this ideology is using human rights to end human lives.

In countering this deceitful narrative we look to the Way, the Truth and the Life – He who created life and brings life in all it’s fullness;

“Jesus saves the world from false freedom, from freedom as a euphemism for power, from freedom as a justification for killing.”  (Brian Zahnd “Beauty will save the world”)