RUTH Wishart says it is wrong for those with little stake in this debate to expect their views to matter more than that of a pregnant woman
It might have been a rather touching – if somewhat belated – scene. Devout Catholics and Evangelical Protestants united in prayer in Belfast. And all a mere 320 years after the battle of the Boyne.
Except, what united them was not the dawning realisation they shared the same God, but the arrival of Satan in their midst – Northern Ireland’s first independent sexual health clinic. The Marie Stopes centre will offer advice on contraception and sexually transmitted diseases. But what stirred this rare outburst of Irish inter-faith unanimity was the fact the clinic – perfectly legally – can also offer terminations within the first nine weeks. For those opposed to abortion on any grounds this was indeed the devil’s work on their doorstep.
For the women who, for decades, have had to “take the boat”, it meant they would no longer have to travel to the British mainland to obtain their legal rights. Over the years, hundreds of pregnant women, north and south, have had to make that lonely journey; the need to deal with their situation in another country among strangers an additional layer of stress to surround a situation which will already have occasioned more than enough of that commodity.
As that mini-drama unfolded, a new service was announced to be available shortly at a chemist near you. Not so much a morning-after pill, but one which could be taken for up to five days after unprotected sex. Now you may imagine this would give comfort to the camp which insists on self-describing as “pro-life” as if, in some demonic way, the rest of us had a barely disguised predilection to mass murder.
After all, if a woman is given the opportunity to ensure that sexual encounter does not result in a pregnancy, then she will not require to seek a termination weeks or months later. The abortion rate should go down, a commonly desired goal for all of us involved in the debate. Instead, we were treated to headlines about the arrival of “the promiscuity pill”.
I have been a woman for quite a long time. I know quite a lot of other women. I have yet to encounter one whose social life was predicated on what the pharmacist might produce from behind the counter following a night where she had cause to regret having sex, or was worried that she or her partner had not used contraception. The point about unplanned sex is that it is just that.
The abortion debate is one subject to constant re-ignition, partly due to the implacable stance of those who will always oppose women having a choice as they consider it unfettered infanticide, and partly because of a series of ill-considered interventions by people never likely to lose any sleep over pregnancy. I speak of men.
More particularly men such as new UK Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who didn’t pause long enough to get his feet under an unfamiliar desk before pronouncing his preference for a new abortion law which prevented terminations after three months. This was a pronouncement which bore all the hallmarks of the mouth being opened a little time before the brain engaged.
Since David Steel’s landmark legislation in 1967 – and let’s not forget its principle aim was to end the butchery of back street abortions – medical science has indeed moved on. Premature babies can survive at an earlier stage of gestation, although the health prognosis of infants arriving very early without fully formed organs is not good.
But what has largely remained unchanged is the time at which tests can reveal significant deformities. These are generally not possible prior to 20 weeks. This is a particularly significant milestone for pregnant women, often without registering it, in later life when they are likely to face an agonising choice about whether to proceed or not.
Where the scans reveal serious problems, the decision taken will be a life-changing one not just for the mother and father, but for pre-existing siblings. Raising a profoundly handicapped child is an exhausting commitment with which many thousands of families cope heroically.
And for many of whom there are manifest rewards amongst the tears. But no woman, no family, should be forced into such an undertaking, least of all by an ill-informed novice health secretary who, the last time I looked, showed little likelihood of having a womb. This is not to deny men a locus in a debate of such moral profundity. But the views of anti-abortion men cannot be given primacy over those of women facing huge post-pregnancy dilemmas.
Certainly not over those women whose child they have not fathered. Society, and the law, have spent very many years attempting to balance competing and strongly-held views. No medical practitioner opposed to abortion is required to participate in a termination.
That’s as it should be. But the corollary is that no opponent of abortion should be in a position to decide either the fate or the acceptable moral standpoint of someone taking an entirely different view with precisely the same degree of personal sincerity. Neither is this debate a matter of abstract philosophy. Not in the United States, where groups of right-wing evangelical Christians somehow find the protection of the rights of the unborn child compatible with killing gynaecologists offering terminations.
We don’t need that breed of hysteria here.
If those demonstrating against abortion laws have the time and the energy, they might like to divert some of it into protecting the rights of the already born; disabled adults and young people whose support is being steadily eroded and quality of life diminished by socalled welfare “reform”.
Join that fight, take up that cause, celebrate those lives, and I’ll happily place my placard alongside yours. I think it’s called being pro-life.