Archive for the 'Reproductive Rights' Category

The Nolan show breaking news: Northern Ireland rocked by childless woman horror!

Which of these news stories is not a news story?

1. Woman wants to have baby 2. Woman gets married 3. Woman has job 4. Woman does not get married 5. Woman does not want to have baby 6. Woman does not have job 7. All of the above

You might be thinking, as I do, that ‘7’ is the correct answer. If we were talking about men we’d be correct, none of the stories above would be newsworthy, but we’re not talking about men. Why aren’t we talking about men? Well I don’t know the answer to that. We’d have to ask Stephen Nolan maybe. Perhaps if you’re a man you might want to ask for parity of news coverage for such an important and vital issue as whether you feel like having kids or not. But let’s get to the point…

Continue reading ‘The Nolan show breaking news: Northern Ireland rocked by childless woman horror!’


European legal challenge on abortion law in the South of Ireland

I spotted this great article today on the Irish Examiner website, outlining the details of an important hearing that will be taking place on Wednesday in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Three real women, with real lives and experiences of crisis pregnancies who were forced to travel to England for abortions are challenging the archaic Irish ban on abortion as a breach of their human rights. The article contains only a line or two about their circumstances but it doesn’t take much to understand the pain behind each of their stories:

“The three women now challenging that law are claiming that being forced to leave Ireland to terminate their pregnancies caused hardship and unnecessary costs.

One of the three had been diagnosed as at risk of an ectopic pregnancy, with the foetus developing outside the womb. Another had become pregnant while receiving chemotherapy for cancer. The third already had children who had been taken into care because of her inability to cope.”

In making the painful decision to abort, it breaks my heart that they had to go through the added stress of finding a private clinic in England, raising the funds to pay for it, booking and paying for travel and accommodation, going there alone, and returning to a health care system that would not offer them any aftercare.

In addition it raises the issue of time. I’ve noticed that there are many people on both (all?) sides of the abortion debate who agree that where a woman chooses an abortion then the earlier this can be obtained the better. Dragging out the decision over weeks helps no one and so a ban on abortion such as that in Ireland increases the anguish of the woman and pushes the procedure into a later stage of the pregnancy.

Ann Furedi, chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, the charity which provides abortions and contraception in Britain to women travelling from the Republic of Ireland, commented: “Hundreds of women travel each year to BPAS from the Republic of Ireland in order to access safe, legal abortion care.

“This is provided to women in almost every other country as a matter of necessary and responsible law-making.”

BPAS Medical Director Patricia Lohr said there could never be any “moral justification” for putting barriers between women and medical care: “Women from the Republic of Ireland often arrive for treatment alone, because they can’t afford to bring their partner or mother to accompany them.

“They are understandably very often apprehensive, having had to travel for hours or days to reach an unfamiliar clinic in England.

It’s disturbing that the law in Ireland forces women to pay privately for care abroad. This creates weeks of delay before seeing a doctor while women try to borrow or save up money to pay for travel, accommodation and for their abortion.

She went on: “The ban means that doctors in Ireland are not routinely issued with proper training and guidance to care for patients in the extremely common situation of seeking an abortion.

“Post-abortion aftercare and follow-up is not easily available in Ireland, meaning women may not get help if they need it, or have to pretend they’ve had a miscarriage to get help.

“As doctors, we’re concerned at the needless burden of additional risk caused by treatment delays. You don’t have to be medically qualified to understand that the Irish abortion ban risks women’s physical health, requires abortions to be performed later than necessary, and creates serious emotional upset for women at an already stressful time.”

Read the whole article and let’s remember those women on Wednesday. This kind of courage is what is needed if we are to ever see things change both in the South and here in the North. What they are about to do will be incredibly difficult and I have a lot of respect for them – by speaking out they could be changing things for all of us.

I do not pay my taxes for this bullshit.

As I watched the news breaking today that Lord Justice Girvan ruled in favour of the notoriously self-interested Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child and ordered our first ever piece of coherent guidance on abortion law and practice be withdrawn, I was stuck by how bloody pleased with themselves they were.

Pleased that, as Breedagh Hughes from the Royal College of Midwives noted, medical professionals in Northern Ireland are back in the dark with absolutely no guidance in the difficult field of reproductive healthcare, finding the best way forward for vulnerable women whose pregnancies have put their health at risk.

Pleased that, at a time when the health services is under intense pressure with the fear of cuts that could put lives at risk, their little act of impudence has been charged to DHSSPS – a fact they proudly state in their own press release. This part disgusts me the most. Because after all, as a tax payer I am happy to hand over a portion of my salary every month knowing that it will contribute to better schools, more hospital beds, better community healthcare provision… I don’t fucking pay it for SPUC to piss it up the wall of Belfast High Court marking their territory in some right-wing show of strength – “Your wombs are ours bitches and don’t forget it!”

So what were the issues that have led to this mess? Well, as I’m sure you’ve heard on the BBC or whatever other outlet you get your news from, 6 of SPUC’s 8 objections were rejected but Judge Girvan upheld their complaints about statements on 1. non-directive counselling and 2. conscientious objections.

Let’s break this down: firstly, ALL counselling should be non-directive. That is fundamental to the nature of counselling. The reason that statement was included in the first place was that some anti-choice support services defile the name of counselling by directing women towards their agenda and giving biased advice that limits their choices. But, as Audrey Simpson from the Family Planning Association pointed out, Judge Girvan displayed what can only be described as ignorance (my word, not Audrey’s) in appearing to misunderstand this most basic principle of counselling. I can just about deal with the knowledge that many of the decisions about my life as a citizen of Northern Ireland lie in the hands of religiously conservative judges acting out of a plethora of prejudices and stereotypes. It is just infuriating when they let you down out of mere stupidity.

Secondly, there appeared to be contradictions in what the guidance said about a practitioner’s right to not take part in the provision of abortion on moral or ethical grounds. On Evening extra (about 17 mins in) Breedagh tried to explain the issue in terms of the difference between having no statutory right to object to a legal procedure based purely on your own ethical objections vs. your own legal right as a citizen to not take part in an apparently illegal act. Granted it is complicated and perhaps Judge Girvan is right and it needs a bit more work before it’s clear enough to be useful to medical practitioners. However, I’m not convinced it’s that tough to get your head round. Think about it… there are a range of conditions under which abortions can be performed in NI. As I have mentioned before, there were 99 such legal abortions in 2007. That means on 99 occasions doctors, midwives etc were able to identify that a woman’s condition fell within the criteria for a legal abortion and they signed the paperwork, arranged the procedure and carried out the operation. What this statutory/legal right to objection seems to refer to is that, in any of those 99 legal abortions no doctor involved in those women’s care would have had any right to refuse to take part purely on the grounds of a personal moral objection. It is a legal procedure to be performed for the care of a patient and therefore under their statutory duty to provide that care they must take part. On the other hand, any practioner who felt a request for an abortion fell outside the criteria would have a legal right as a citizen to refuse to take part in something they would believe to be an illegal act. Geddit? Moral refusal to provide care a woman is legally entitled to – not allowed. Legal refusal to take part in abortion that doesn’t fall within the legal criteria – allowed. Easy peasy. Except that now medical practitioners have NO GUIDELINES it’s much harder to make that all important decision about what falls within the legal criteria. Cheers SPUC.

But you know, rather than hate on them and rise to the provocation of Liam Gibson’s smarmy grin in the face of such a colossal waste of public money and offence to the autonomy of women, I will remember that the guidelines weren’t ‘quashed’ but merely withdrawn with a requirement that those two points be revisited and a new version submitted. So the journey continues. AND I’m extremely curious about the fact that the BBC Newsline website have posted a full copy of the guidelines as a pdf document that can be downloaded and saved so all of us can have our very own copy. All my faith in the good people at the BBC is sustaining my belief that it’s a subtle act of defiance. If any of you have friends in the medical profession why not email them a copy. Given that many GPs in Northern Ireland are driven to phone the Family Planning Association’s crisis pregnancy helpline, you may find they really appreciate it.

One last thing, on Day 6 of the 16 days of action on violence against women I can’t discuss this issue without stating clearly that the denial of the right to legal and safe abortions that we suffer in Northern Ireland is an act of violence against women. I say this because it forces women into poverty, puts their lives at risk, denies them the space and dignity to make the right choices for themselves and their families when faced with a pregnancy that is going to cause them distress. It’s an act of violence perpetrated by the selfishness and ignorance of blinkered people who, as one blogger at forth lamented, shout louder than reason.

Congratulations Dawn Purvis!

After yesterday’s slightly dark look at the failure of our devolved government to have half a clue about pretty much anything that matters, especially that which matters to women, it only seems right that I acknowledge one particular winner at the Slugger Awards last night.

Dawn Purvis scooped MLA of the year, nominated by Slugger readers and named victorious by a panel of journos, bloggers and general PR-y type people. I’m delighted she not only won but also received the biggest cheer of the night from the assembled crowd in the Black Box. As one of her East Belfast constituents it’s always a source of pride to be represented by someone who doesn’t play the sectarian game and has a genuine desire to do the best with what we’ve got and try to build a vision for a peaceful and progressive Northern Ireland. Importantly for women, she is one of the most openly feminist MLAs and has risked her support base, her seat and even her party leadership to advocate for the extension of the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland.

In Dawn we have a female representative who believes in women and understands that equality has to be fought for. At the same time she also understands the nuances of the NI political arena, tries not to alienate those who disagree but stands up for what she believes when a principle is on the line. When she spoke to defend the party’s position on reproductive rights after it was challenged in a debate at the party conference in October, she gave a passionate defence of this policy as core to their priniciples of social justice and equality for all. I was almost bursting with pride and hope as party members voted with her.

Dawn is not the only reason to be cheerful when it comes to female representation. Anna Lo is the only other openly pro-choice MLA, again placing her passion for women’s rights above the temptation to not rock the boat. As our only MLA from an ethnic minority community she has overcome a double barrier to achieve the support of her constituents and have a voice for some of the most vulnerable people in Northern Ireland. Barbara de Bruin is an excellent advocate for women’s rights in Europe and as an MEP has used her role to help push forward the kind of social policy we seem to be a bit slow to wake up to over here. And I was gutted when I heard of Carmel Hanna‘s plans to leave the Assembly as she has been an inspiring female politician who, along with Anna, has been really active on the issues of sex trafficking and sexual violence that have plagued South Belfast in recent years.

So there you have it. Those women are out there representing us. They need us to engage with them, to speak up when decisions affects us, to hold them to account. to congratulate them when they do us proud. And maybe eventually, some more of us will join them…

Abortion guidance judicial review: why do some anti-choicers think women should be kept in the dark about their rights?

Yesterday I wrote of the shameful waste of public money on the part of anti-choice group SPUC who are fighting the DHSSPS in Belfast’s High Court, demanding the withdrawal of important guidance for health professionals on abortion law and practice. Despite the hearing concluding yesterday, the judgement was reserved and so I have no more information at this point. After trying my best to summarize the law which this document seeks to explain for practitioners, tonight I’m going to look at the journey of local campaigners that has led to this point.

Part 2: The fpa’s 8 year fight for clarity

Our story begins in May 2001 when the fpa applied for a judicial review of “medical practices relating to abortion and the provision of abortion services in NI”, a process which finally got it’s hearing in March 2002. The reason the fpa initiated this process was out of a desperate concern for women who were experiencing inconsistent care because doctors themselves were so confused as to what the law demanded of them. When GPs are phoning the fpa’s helpline for advice that must be a sure sign that something isn’t right. The aim of the judicial review was to hold the DHSSPS to account, make them face up to the fact that they have a responsibility to issue clear guidance rather than bury their heads in the sand and hope that Easyjet will continue to take care of Northern Irish womens’ abortion needs.

On first hearing, the courts did not rule in favour of compelling the dept to do this although, Mr Justice Kerr did recommend it would be “prudent” of them to do so. Two years later in March 2004, the fpa successfully appealed this judgement and finally the DHSSPS were required to both consult those working in the medical profession, agencies that support women, and women themselves, and issue useful practical guidance to help inform practice. I outlined in last night’s post what that guidance contains – useful stuff which, to be honest, probably doesn’t go far enough. The fpa pointed out in their consultation response that a lot of the questions people raised in the consultation stage were ignored. Basically, the document effectively restates the law but doesn’t do great at actually helping practitioners deal with the realities of women who need abortions under a range of complex, sensitive and painful circumstances.

But what are SPUC’s concerns? What is so frightening about this document that compels them to fight it in the courts? I’ve had a look at their arguments and I think it boils down to this:

This is the dogmatic assertion of all anti-choice groups and quite frankly is a complete legal fallacy. There is no evidence of any legal status being afforded to a foetus in case law history. In fact in the Irish courts, where you’d expect protection for the foetus given that the rights of the unborn are written into the Irish constitution, a landmark case where a woman wanted to have an embryo implanted following IVF with her now ex-husband, ruled in favour of the man who didn’t want the embryo to be implanted and the embryo was destroyed. I could say WAY more about this but I’ll save it for now…


Let’s be really clear about this – anti-choice groups would like women to believe that abortion is illegal in Northern Ireland. I think they reckon that if women believe that then they will be less likely to consider abortion as an option when they face a crisis pregnancy. As with the first point, it is simply not true. The law clearly makes provision for women to access abortion where there will be adverse effects on their physical or mental health. In 2007, there were 99 LEGAL abortions performed in hospitals in Northern Ireland. While it is possible those 99 were all emergency life-saving operations, this is most likely not the case. If SPUC want us to think that only an intervention to save a life justifies an abortion then perhaps they would prefer those 99 women had been left to suffer with life-limiting heart conditions, degenerative blindness, MS, severe post-natal depression, suicide…

  • They especially don’t like the idea of abortion on the grounds of adverse mental health.


Presumably because they think women lie. There are a lot of unhelpful myths about abortion and why women may need to terminate a pregnancy. When you hear the complete ignorance of some people who think most people seeking abortions are delinquent teenage girls who can’t wait to get rid of it so they can get back out clubbing with their mates…it doesn’t surprise me at all that they would assume women would fake being suicidal to get an abortion. What does surprise me is that they think the expert analysis of two psychiatrists (necessary for an abortion to be granted) wouldn’t be able to pick that up.

I hope the courts see through the idiocy of SPUC’s attempts to derail the process of getting accurate information to doctors and appropriate care to women who not only desperately need it, but are legally entitled to it.


Northern Ireland Abortion Law: vague, confusing and inconsistent. Some people want to keep it that way…

Yesterday in Belfast’s High Court a judicial review progress began, brought by anti-choice group SPUC against the DHSSPS in an attempt to have recently published departmental guidance on abortion practice revoked. It was due to conclude today but as yet there have been no press releases on the issue. Since SPUC appear to churn out a press release every time one of their number takes a successful dump, I’m going to assume that either a) the hearing will continue tomorrow b) they didn’t get the result they wanted.

In the meantime I thought it might be helpful to recap a bit of the back story to these events as it helps put into perspective the shameful decision of SPUC to waste public money by forcing the DHSSPS to defend a valid and extremely important document in the courts. This is quite an epic story and so for today I give you…

Part 1: The Legislation

When you start to read the various laws and rulings in test cases that have shaped abortion law in Northern Ireland you begin to understand more fully why a guidance document was well overdue. The most significant are:

  • The Offences Against the Person Act 1861

The most commonly quoted, the Act which states clearly that performing an “unlawful” abortion on yourself or another person is a felony. Also includes supplying any “poison, noxious thing or instrument” that you know is going to be used for an abortion. I’m hoping they don’t use poison these days…

  • The R. v Bourne Case 1939

An obstetrician who carried out an abortion for a 14 year old girl who had been raped was charged under The Offences Against the Person Act 1861. The judge in the case made the important observation that the act makes reference to “unlawfully” procuring an abortion. In the legal progress made since the writing of that act, there now existed some ways of defining what “unlawfully” meant. He concluded it had something to do with making sure a woman doesn’t die unnecessarily. As well as talking about the preservation of life, he noted that abortion should be legal where a medical professional judges that “the continuance of the pregnancy will be to make the woman a physical or mental wreck.” The ruling in this test case served as the main guiding legislation in all of the UK until the Abortion Act 1967 brought more clarity and consistency of practice in England, Wales and Scotland. We weren’t so fortunate…

  • The Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1945

Depressingly, this act states that the penalty for “child destruction” is life imprisonment. However, it also incorporates the proviso that no felony has been committed if the act is “done in good faith for the purpose only of preserving the life of the mother”, in accordance with the 1939 Bourne case.

What has emerged over the years is that the physical part of the dilemma is easy enough to rule on while the definition of a “mental wreck” is a little more difficult. As it currently stands, the law can be interpreted under 6 principles, within which it becomes clear that legal abortions can be carried out in Northern Ireland where there will probably be an adverse effect to the woman’s physical or mental health which is deemed to be “real and serious” and “permanent or long term”. In addition, it is worth noting that for a legal abortion to be granted on the grounds of mental health, it is most likely that there would have to be evidence of a pre-existing mental illness but not in all cases.

All of the above information is included in the DHSSPS guidance, along with lots more useful facts about abortion practice, how decisions are made, the responsibilities doctors have towards women in their care and the options open to doctors who have ethical objections to abortion provision. I can’t for the life of me imagine any reason to have this document withdrawn and so I’m looking to SPUC to explain to me the sinister element I appear to have missed.

Stop by tomorrow for Part 2: The fpa’s 8 Year Fight for Clarity when we will hopefully have the result of the hearing.

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