JEREMY CORBYN’S “very politely” expressed advice to Arlene Foster that the DUP leader should play her part in getting devolved government working again in Northern Ireland should be taken seriously.
Her desire to resist all pressure to change the current ban on abortion — unless the mother’s life or health is at stake — in the six counties by insisting that abortion is a devolved matter only holds water if the Northern Ireland Assembly is operating.
Insistence on abortion being proper to Stormont alone while digging in her heels to prevent its return is an attitude that fails the women of Northern Ireland.
A woman’s ability to decide whether to proceed with a pregnancy to term is a human right that should not be dependent on politicians’ whim.
Abortion is a medical service that is open to women to choose or not. It must not be banned by politicians who insist on denying freedom of choice to women who wish to access the service.
The UK Supreme Court is expected to rule tomorrow on whether existing Northern Ireland anti-abortion law contravenes human rights legislation, which is applicable across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Indeed, Foster has previously stipulated, with regard to negotiations over leaving the European Union, that there should be no legislative disparity between Britain and Northern Ireland.
There is clearly a problem when just 16 terminations were carried out in the six counties in 2015-16, while no fewer than 833 Northern Ireland women had to travel to England in 2015 to end unwanted pregnancies.
The situation has become more pressing since the Irish Republic’s referendum decision overturned the constitutional ban on abortion, opening the way to new legislation.
Drastically changed public opinion in the republic towards a women’s choice agenda has influenced attitudes within Sinn Fein, which has moved from an anti-choice position via conditional approval towards the possibility of backing unconditional recourse to abortion up to 12 weeks at this month’s party conference.
Crucial to change in Northern Ireland is repeal of sections of the 1861 Offences against the Person Act to ensure that abortion is no longer treated as a criminal offence but as a medical issue.
Labour MP Stella Creasy’s initiative in seeking the Speaker’s agreement to hold an emergency debate on decriminalisation is a vital step forward to acknowledging women’s human rights on this question.
The cross-party backing she received contrasts with views expressed by the male MPs representing Foster’s party, such as Jeffrey Donaldson’s self-congratulatory claim that “100,000 people are alive in Northern Ireland today because the Abortion Act 1967 was not accepted.”
He should be reminded of the human cost, including women’s lives lost through unsafe, illegal abortions, of decades of denial of women’s rights.
The right to safe and legal abortion is a matter of choice. No-one is forced to undergo an abortion and for men the issue is academic, so the likes of Donaldson should question their arrogance in seeking to dictate to women that, once pregnant, they have no authority over their own bodies.
People have every right to be guided by their religious views, but, whether Presbyterian, Catholic or any other faith, they have no right to impose their beliefs on other people.
It would be wonderful if Foster and the DUP would drop their obstructive attitude to bringing back devolved government in Northern Ireland.
If they persist, however, with their blocking tactics, London and Dublin should convene the British Irish Intergovernmental Conference to put the women’s choice agenda centre-stage.
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