BELFAST, Northern Ireland — Shops are busy in the city center of Belfast, restaurants are full, and pedestrian walkways humming. One might not suspect this was Ground Zero for the Troubles that plagued Northern Ireland for years.
With a new power-sharing arrangement in effect since May 8, former political enemies are governing the region together in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Protestant Rev. Ian Paisley of the Democratic Unionist Party and Catholic Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein became the first minister and deputy first minister.
But pro-life Irish are worried that all is not well.
Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom, and so Northern Ireland normally would be subject to the British 1967 Abortion Act, which permits abortion for social reasons and has effectively come to mean abortion-on-demand. But due to broad opposition to abortion here, the act did not apply to Northern Ireland. Abortion there is still restricted.
That looks set to change, however.
This October sees the 40th anniversary of the legislation, and its supporters are seeking to mark the milestone with an extension of the law to Northern Ireland.
“Unlike in Britain, abortion is almost completely criminalized in Northern Ireland,” said the Abortion Rights organization in a statement. “This does not prevent women from needing or seeking abortion. Instead it unfairly forces them to travel secretly, often alone, to Britain or to Europe. Very few abortions are allowed legally in Northern Ireland today: around 70 per year.”
Pro-abortion campaigners will probably introduce plans for Northern Ireland under the guise of a general revision of the law. Under the 1967 law, the signatures of two doctors are necessary in order to confirm that there are serious medical and social reasons for the unborn child to be aborted.
Under suggested legislation, this requirement — which in any case is usually regarded as no more than a technicality — would be abandoned and a woman would have the automatic right to “abortion on request” in the first three months of pregnancy. This would be combined with extending the legislation to the whole of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland.
The legislation has not yet congealed into a formal Parliamentary Bill, however pro-abortion groups such as Marie Stopes International and the Family Planning Association are pushing for it.
The move would be resisted by Unionists, including Paisley. Sinn Fein has taken a more ambivalent position, and its 2006 annual conference passed a motion supporting abortion as “a woman’s right to choose.” But overall, the new Northern Ireland Assembly would probably oppose unrestricted abortion.
However, policies are also subject to decisions made in Westminster. With Gordon Brown as the new British prime minister, pressure to extend the Abortion Act to Northern Ireland is set to increase.
Brown is a “son of the manse” — his father was a Presbyterian minister in Scotland. At a recent formal meeting with Pope Benedict XVI in Rome, he gave the Pope a book of his father’s sermons. He has said that his Christian upbringing still influences the way he thinks, and his image is very much that of a family man, frequently pictured with his wife and small sons. There was widespread national sympathy when a baby daughter died when only a few weeks old.
But his support for abortion as a social right has never wavered. He has voted consistently in favor of the life-killing procedure. In 1988 and 1990, when life issues were being debated in the House of Commons, he voted three times for abortion up to birth, for disabled babies. He voted twice for abortion on demand in early pregnancy and also to extend the Abortion Act to Northern Ireland. He also voted to facilitate the abortion drug RU486, and for selective feticide in multiple pregnancies.
“He also voted five times to promote destructive embryo experimentation” said John Smeaton, director of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children. “Gordon Brown’s government is not only as bad on life-related issues as Tony Blair’s, but even promises to be worse in this area than his predecessor.”
In addition, the new secretary of state for health, Alan Johnson, is a strong supporter of abortion on demand, and soon after becoming a Member of Parliament in 1997 signed two parliamentary motions, one supporting “a woman’s right to choose” and another condemning “restrictive abortion laws.” His minister of state, Dawn Primarolo, has voted for the extension of the Abortion Act to Northern Ireland, and Beverley Hughes, appointed to a newly-named Ministry for Children, Families and Schools signed a 1997 parliamentary motion demanding that the Abortion Act be extended there.
When Paisley met with representatives of Northern Ireland’s Catholic Bishops to discuss issues of common concern, the question of abortion was high on the agenda, and there was strong agreement to oppose any extension of the Abortion Act to the territory. Father Tim Bartlett, secretary to the Catholic Bishops’ Commission on Social Affairs in Northern Ireland, said, “We are opposed to these measures on two grounds. Firstly, there is the ethical opposition to abortion, and our support for the right to life of the unborn child. Secondly, that the views of the democratically elected representatives of Northern Ireland be taken into account.
“Nationalists and republicans would regard this as the imposition of a deeply unpopular piece of legislation by a British Parliament,” he said.
Meanwhile, in the Republic of Ireland, where abortion is restricted by law, the numbers of women traveling to Britain for abortions has fallen. Pro-life groups believe this is partly due to increased awareness of the realities of abortion, and better help for mothers facing unexpected pregnancies. The social stigma once attached to unmarried mothers has also been practically eliminated.
There are dedicated pro-life groups in Northern Ireland, which have worked effectively over the years to protect the province’s unborn children. They will be able to draw on a general dislike of having social legislation imposed by a London-based government that reflects values that they do not share.
But they face a tough fight.
Joanna Bogle is based in London.