Northern Ireland’s abortion laws are incompatible with human rights

When Alistair Campbell said ‘We don’t do God’, he was referring to the British government and its policy making process with specific respect to the Iraq war. With falling church attendance and more people describing themselves as non-religious, these words now aptly represent Britain as a whole. While this is also true for Northern Ireland, the most religious of the four countries in the UK, its public life continues to be conducted along sectarian lines.

The consequences of religious dominance in public life have manifested in high profile court cases related to Northern Ireland’s anti-abortion law. A 21-year old woman has been sentenced for chemically inducing a miscarriage, while another woman is to stand trial for helping her daughter have an abortion. Northern Ireland has the strictest anti-abortion laws in Europe; to terminate a pregnancy, women have to travel to Britain, as thousands of women do each year, or have a DIY abortion using drugs obtained online.

The legal framework ensures a situation which forces women to surrender their right to live as they please once they are impregnated, even as a result of rape or incest. Anyone who has an understanding of the emotional turmoil that results from considering an abortion, only heightened for victims of sexual assault, would struggle to describe these draconian laws as anything short of sinful.

Northern Ireland controlled its own affairs when the 1967 Abortion Act was passed in Parliament, and so it was never enforced. If a quirk of history stopped its implementation, religious authority has ensured it has stayed that way. It illustrates that pain and suffering caused in Northern Ireland by the division of Catholicism and Protestantism can also occur when they are united.

A ruling from Belfast High Court, which stated the current law was incompatible with international human rights legislation, supported Amnesty International, which is opposed to the ban.  The Northern Ireland assembly has fought this judgment as well as voting against any relaxation of the current rules in February. Lawmakers who usually greet interference from European institutions with consternation and disdain actively court the approval of the Vatican.

This month Pope Francis released a statement updating Catholic views on family life. The letter, titled Amoris Laetitia, or ‘The Joy of Love’ contained no new-enlightened thinking on the issue of abortion, declaring that the life of the mother and the unborn child are equal. While embattled proponents of Church modernisation suffer another defeat, political parties in Northern Ireland have sensed an opportunity.

Catholics represent the largest single religious block in Northern Ireland and as the ideas of unionism and nationalism decline, all political parties are appealing for their vote. This is giving Church leaders unprecedented access to the political process in Northern Ireland. The Catholic Church, for which no scandal is great enough to elicit any shameful silence, is exploiting this in order to cement the laws on abortion. Religious influence on lawmakers should scare anyone who has observed how across multiple issues religious morality has fallen well below average human standards.

The emancipation of women owes a lot to abortion and contraception. Developing countries are discovering that there is a limit to what can be achieved whilst religious doctrine enslaves women to their menstrual cycle. We cannot continue to lecture these countries on women’s rights whilst Northern Ireland holds the sword of Damocles over our head. 18 years on from the Good Friday agreement it is high time we told Northern Ireland that the United Kingdom does not do God. 

Image credit: Flickr: Michael Stamp

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