On Tuesday 22nd November a 45,000-strong petition organised by Amnesty International was submitted to the Speaker in the Northern Ireland Assembly by my South Belfast colleague Clare Bailey MLA, Green Party. The Amnesty International petition called for the Reform of the Law on Abortion in Northern Ireland. I wholeheartedly support this call and here are my personal thoughts.
Whether women should be allowed to choose to terminate pregnancy is, perhaps, the defining social issue in this Assembly. It can be difficult to discuss; to some people it is a matter of healthcare and trusting women to make their own choices; to others it is core to their personal morality. A divergence of views isn’t unique to Northern Ireland, but we are distinctive in that we have no modern legislation that governs this area. For my part, I am clear that we must allow women the right to choose, but I am equally clear that is a choice for individuals to make.
In England, Scotland and Wales, the 1967 Abortion Act allows women who choose it to terminate pregnancy if two doctors agree and the Act is widely accepted. Across the Irish border, abortion is illegal in all but very narrow circumstances. Ireland is united, at least in the refusal to allow women access to terminations.
Closer to home our debate has, sadly, been dominated by the loudest voices and people who place their personal and public piety ahead of the interests of some of the most marginalised in our society. I will always trust women and I believe in the positive case for progressive change.
If we look at the opinions of people who live in Northern Ireland, and set to one side the voices we know already, we see that people are once again far ahead of their politicians. In research undertaken by Millward Brown, we learn that 72% of people agree that abortion should be allowed in cases of rape or incest. In cases of fatal foetal abnormalities, 67% of people agree that abortion should be allowed.
Moreover, when asked whether criminal penalties should be removed for women who have abortions in Northern Ireland, 58% agree this should happen. Similar support (59%) exists for removing criminal penalties for doctors and medical staff who provide abortion services. A clear majority want to see change and legislators who do not rise to the challenge will find themselves on the wrong side of history.
My personal view is that we must legislate for change, and to give women much greater access to terminations in Northern Ireland. I believe that women have their rights denied locally and it is a failure of our politics that we export our problem to GB. Let us not forget that class plays a role in this too, women are still paid less than men, and the cost of travel, accommodation and treatment mean that it is women of means who can afford to go to GB.
I am committed to working with colleagues and those in other parties to realise the ambition of a progressive Northern Ireland, one where women find their healthcare needs are provided for, their reproductive rights are upheld, and their contribution to society is fully recognised.