For generations the gears of the political systems in Northern Ireland have been oiled by religion. Northern Irish politicians have interweaved their self-perceived concepts of morality (determined by their personal religious beliefs) into the politics of the country. The religious beliefs of the country’s politicians have profoundly affected the passage of many pieces of legislation through parliament, which has lead to the isolation, discrimination and, at times, social persecution of those who do not conform to these beliefs. Laws surrounding abortion are a prime example of this.
The current legislation surrounding abortion in place in Northern Ireland is anachronistic, and I am not speaking figuratively. The 1861 Offences Against the Person Act prevents a woman from obtaining an abortion if she is raped or, in the case of fatal foetal abnormalities, under punishment of a maximum sentence of LIFE imprisonment. Thus, the law still exists from a time when it was common for twelve-year-old children to work 14-hour days in cholera-infested factories, and men were legally allowed to beat their wives with a stick (but only if it was thinner than their thumb).
The act is by no means a dormant piece of legislature. This April a 21-year-old woman from Belfast was given a three month suspended sentence for carrying out a self-induced miscarriage using pills she bought online. This woman’s decision to abort the pregnancy would have been one of the most emotionally and physically tasking moments she had ever experienced. For the rest of her life, every time she applies for an international visa, a job, adoption application etc. she must detail this conviction, meaning it will plague her indefinitely. Many women in Northern Ireland who decide to have an abortion travel to England where it is currently legal. This trip costs on average £900, a sum of money that is not light heartedly expended in an economically underdeveloped country. Thus, the law actively discriminates against working class women who do not have the money to travel to England for an abortion and are forced to have the child or terminate the pregnancy by illegal means. In November 2015 Belfast’s High court ruled that Northern Ireland’s current abortion law is incompatible with international human rights. Furthermore, an Amnesty International survey stated that 3⁄5 people in Northern Ireland agree that the law should be changed to include cases of foetal abnormalities, incest and rape. So why then has there been no change in the last 155 years?
The party is and has historically been controlled by evangelical and fundamentalist Christians. The party opposes any change to the current laws surrounding abortion and has a large enough majority in parliament to prevent a change in legislation. This is not the first time the party has opposed a change in law that would facilitate social equality. The party’s founder Ian Paisley led his party on a campaign to ‘Save Ulster from Sodomy’, claiming homosexual acts were “a crime against God and man and its practice is a terrible step to the total demoralisation of any country.” This campaign intended to prevent the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Northern Ireland.
The DUP, however, are not solely to blame. The Catholic dominated pro-life group Precious life frequently protest outside Belfast’s family planning clinic. Typically these protests revolve around harassing and showing extremely graphic images of aborted foetuses to women who are seeking advice about undergoing a pregnancy termination. The leader of the group, Bernadette Smith, currently has a restraining order in place against her which was filled by a former Belfast MP (Dawn Purvis) who supported a change in the current laws surrounding abortion. This was a result of continuous and belligerent harassment from the pro-life campaigner.
So why then has there been no change in the last 155 years?
The education system in Northern Ireland is also inseparably associated with religion. The teachers actively project their religious views on the students. Whilst at school I remember being shown in religious education class a movie called The Silent Scream. This involved being forced to watch grotesque images of abortions from the 1980s obviously in an attempt by the Catholic school to ensure students associated the procedure with feelings of repulsion. Statistically speaking there was a very high chance that a girl in my class at the time might have had an abortion or might have known someone very close to them who would had one.
Nearly 5000 women in the past five years have travelled to Britain from Northern Ireland to obtain an abortion. The opposition believes that legal changes will lead to a spike in abortions, yet inevitably if a woman desperately wants an abortion in Northern Ireland she will have one. All a change in the current laws will do is help protect the mental and physical health of women in crisis and prevent them from being stigmatised by society as a murderer for making an incomprehensibly difficult decision. Fundamentally, the archaic legislation in place inhibits one of the most significant human rights. Freewill.