Women and equalities committee visit Northern Ireland on abortion

The House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee visited Northern Ireland on Thursday to speak to campaigners on both sides of the abortion debate.

The hearings, which took place in Antrim and Londonderry, heard from activists on the general view of the law and whether MPs in the House of Commons should intervene on women’s reproductive health issues in the absence of a working assembly in Stormont.

In Antrim’s Civic Centre, anti-abortion campaigners Dawn McAvoy, co-founder of Both Lives Matter, Sarah Haire from Stanton Healthcare and Marion Woods, Life NI told MPs it would be “irresponsible” for Westminster to overrule a devolved issue.

“This issue is devolved, and it’s a dangerous precedent to set for devolution, if Westminster would get involved in altering the law,” Ms McAvoy said.

“I think there is this idea that Northern Ireland is The Handmaid’s Tale, this very religious place, this little bubble where women don’t have a voice.

“We don’t have the policies in place to cater for abortion, it would be a huge change in Northern Ireland, it would be reckless to do something without an Assembly to deal with the fall-out.”

Labour MP Jess Phillips (pictured) asked the campaigners whether they believed women should be criminalised for having a termination.

Ms Woods repeatedly went on to compare criminalisation of women having abortions to someone facing charges for disturbing a badgers’ set.

Noting that a person hypothetically would face charges for disturbing a badgers’ set but not “terminating life”.

The answer was repeated so often that Chairwoman Maria Miller MP, intervened saying: “Please stop talking about badgers.”

Ms Woods added: “There is discretion in the law, there is a process, at the end of the day, the judge doesn’t have to give a jail sentence, you can give a fine.”

The anti-abortion group noted that care in Northern Ireland for children with life limiting conditions is “patchy” and that women should “feel empowered to choose life” if they know there are appropriate services for them and their child to avail of.

They added that some women felt abortion was a “solution” because they did not feel their child would have adequate medical care or the women’s life or career could be limited by lack of childcare options and support in Northern Ireland, and that this issue should be tackled head on.

In Derry’s Waterside Theatre on Thursday evening, Dr Goretti Horgan, deputy director, ARK, Dr Fiona Bloomer, reproductive Health Law and Policy Advisory Group, Emma Campbell, co-chair, Alliance for Choice and Grainne Teggart, from Amnesty International UK made the case for “free, safe and legal abortion”.

Ms Teggart argued for full decriminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland.

“The current law puts women’s health at risk, causes unnecessary distress, and undermines the quality of care from service-providers,” she said.

“The practical result of the legal regime is that women who require an abortion have to travel to obtain one, or buy medical abortion pills online, which is illegal and leaves them vulnerable to prosecution.

“This excludes many people who are unable to travel including, victims of domestic violence, refugees with unconfirmed immigration status, those who are too young to travel alone and those with complex health needs. Travel carries stigma.”

In Northern Ireland, abortion is only lawful in limited circumstances, where there is a risk to a woman or girl’s life or the risk of real and serious long-term or permanent damage to her physical or mental health.

Department of Health statistics show that just 12 abortions were carried out by the health service in Northern Ireland last year.

Amnesty International say over 900 women from Northern Ireland travelled to the UK for terminations during the same period.

The committee will hold a final hearing on Friday in Belfast.

Copyright (c) Press Association Ltd. 2019, All Rights Reserved. Picture (c) Victoria Jones / PA Wire.