For more than five years now, much of the conversation about abortion in Northern Ireland has centred around what are described as the ‘hard cases’. These are routinely understood to mean ‘fatal foetal abnormality’ and sexual crime. These are very difficult ethical situations which demand incredible compassion and there is no easy answer to these crises. From the starting point that both lives matter in every pregnancy, and perhaps particularly in these circumstances, we want to see every human being – born and unborn – cared for, supported and protected as far as humanly possible.
The law in Northern Ireland allows for abortion where is it necessary to save the life of the woman – this is interpreted to mean (via the Bourne case) that there is a risk of real and serious adverse effect on her physical or mental health which is either long term or permanent. The Bourne case involved a fourteen-year-old girl who was gang-raped by a group of soldiers. The doctor who performed the abortion, not the teenage girl, was prosecuted and acquitted due to the circumstances. So right at the heart of the interpretation of the law on abortion here in Northern Ireland is a case which widened the original interpretation of the law to include consideration of such hard cases.
It is true to say there is no automatic right to an abortion here on the grounds that a woman has been raped. This is also true across the rest of GB. There is, however, a discretion in the law here for doctors to make an assessment based on the health of the woman as per the Bourne judgement.
Similarly, there is no automatic right to an abortion when a baby is diagnosed with a ‘fatal foetal abnormality’. There is the same discretion for doctors to make a consideration based on the health of the woman.
This is not a statement on whether or not we agree with abortion in these difficult situations; this is the current law. If this current law is properly applied, through appropriate guidelines, then much of the emotive push to change the law would be gone.
However, the law is being routinely misrepresented and derided for political ends, for example, as per Stella Creasey’s comments in the House of Commons last week. She said, “When it comes to abortion, we know that right now in Northern Ireland, if you are raped, and you become pregnant as a result of that attack, and you seek a termination, you could face a longer prison sentence than your attacker.”
We will come back to the issue of jail and prison sentence in a moment but it is important to be really clear here – you cannot face a jail sentence in Northern Ireland for seeking a termination through the health service. Here’s what the latest guidance from March 2016 to the medical profession says:–
‘If a woman has sought a termination of pregnancy but does not meet the grounds under the law in Northern Ireland.’
5.9 Such a situation must be treated sensitively. Health and social care professionals should explore the woman’s concerns and expectations to establish what kind of support she is getting or may expect to receive from her partner, family, Health and Social Care team etc.’
So to recap, a woman may be able to obtain an abortion in Northern Ireland if she has been raped. It is not an automatic right (the same applies throughout GB) but an assessment is made on the risk to the health of the woman. If the woman seeks an abortion and is refused, she commits no criminal offence and is able to travel to GB to obtain an abortion.
You can face a jail sentence for illegally having or trying to procure an abortion which is proscribed by the law – again, as is the case in the rest of GB. Redressing criminal sentencing when it comes to abortion and the victims of rape should not be conflated with a conversation about decriminalising the law entirely (we will look at decriminalisation in more detail tomorrow).
These sensitive, hard cases are rare in number but have been at the centre of so many media stories, legal challenges and pro-choice campaigns.
The hard cases were used during the referendum in the South to bring in changes which will allow any woman to abort any baby up to 12 weeks for any reason. In Northern Ireland these cases are being used as the basis of argument for change – see here for example just a few days after the Referendum result.
We know that the National Union of Journalists and many elements of the media including the BBC have an inherent pro-choice bias – make up your own mind here.
Last week the Chief Commissioner of the Human Rights Commission admitted that, even if these hard cases were dealt with specifically in law, they would be pursuing further changes including abortion on the grounds of disability or ‘serious malformation’ and decriminalisation. You can watch the footage here from around 24 – 26 minutes.
Abortion activists are also at last being more open about the changes in law that they are really pursuing – abortion for any reason up to at least 24 weeks through the complete decriminalisation of abortion.
We want our supporters to be really clear on this.
- The hard cases are called hard cases for a reason, there are few easy solutions but this does not mean we abandon our belief that both lives matter.
- The landscape has changed rapidly in the past five years. In that time, the South has radically changed its laws far beyond these hard cases and the push in the UK is for decriminalisation beyond the hard cases.
- These hard cases are deliberately being used by campaign groups to bring much wider law change. At the same time these groups and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission are now being open in the fact that they want law change far beyond the hard cases.
- Even if every pro-life group in Northern Ireland accepted legal change for the hard cases – the pro-abortion movement and the NIHRC would keep campaigning for further changes.
We know that 93% of people surveyed in Northern Ireland think both lives are important in pregnancy. We also know that the vast majority of people in GB rather than extend abortion limits actually want to reduce the time limit on abortion from 24 weeks and tighten regulations around abortion. Only 1% support abortion up to birth.
We should not let them be used to push through much wider law reform that most people here are deeply uncomfortable with – healthy women aborting healthy babies for any reason.