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Ireland and abortion
  Abortion Law and Politics Today
By Ellie Lee, Tony O'Brien and Audrey Simpson


What follows is a transcript of the launch of the recently published collection of essays, Abortion Law and Politics Today (Macmillan Press, 1998). The launch was held at Blackwells bookshop, Broad Street Oxford on 13 October 1998. Ellie Lee, editor of Abortion Law and Politics Today, was in conversation with two contributors to the book, Tony O'Brien, Chief Executive of the Irish Family Planning Association and Audrey Simpson, Director of the Northern Ireland Family Planning Association.

EL: Could you both begin by summarising the law in the North and the Republic of Ireland, and say what implications this has for women seeking abortion.

AS: Essentially, abortion in Northern Ireland is governed by the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act. This was brought in before partition, and still governs both parts of Ireland. The act states that anybody who is found performing or assisting in an abortion is guilty of a felony, and can be sentenced to penal servitude for life. There was also another act passed in 1945, but that tends to focus on abortion after the 28th week of pregnancy. This means there is some confusion about whether it is illegal to have an abortion after 28 weeks, but legal before.

The 1861 Act was challenged in 1938 by a gynaecologist based in London called Dr Alex Bourne, who performed an abortion on a young woman who had been raped. He was in some ways praised for doing that, and what is known as the Bourne Ruling became a loop-hole in the law, introducing ambiguity in relation to the prohibition given by the 1861 legislation. The 1967 Abortion Act was brought in to clarify what it was legal for doctors to do, but when it was brought in, the act included the statement 'This Act does not apply to Northern Ireland'. I have asked campaigners for abortion law reform such as Dilys Cossey, who were active at the time, why that happened. It seems it was much easier to get the act passed by excluding Northern Ireland, and so this was done for pragmatic reasons, on this basis that at a later date it would be passed for Northern Ireland. Of course this has not happened, and we are left with ambiguity.

In Northern Ireland, there are some abortions done called therapeutic abortions. For the first time ever, some statistics were released, which said that there were just over 1700 done in the year, but within the statistics, spontaneous abortions or miscarriages were included. The other three categorisations are terribly obscure, and it does not seem possible to get information from a gynaecologist, civil servant or any one else to clarify the categorisations. It seems however that the vast majority are performed for fetal abnormality, some to save the woman's life, and some where the woman has a learning difficulty. These last kind quite often end up in court and the judge has to rule whether the woman is permitted to have the abortion.

The question this raises is how can there be therapeutic abortions under the legislation that is in place? The answer in my view is that they cannot be done, and therefore these are illegal abortions, since they are not done to save the life of the woman. This demonstrates the ambiguity of the situation in Northern Ireland. The Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights, which is a British body set up to ensure Northern Ireland's laws conform to European legislation, has investigated for example strip searching and also the law on abortion. It found that Northern Ireland's abortion law could not withstand a challenge at Strasbourg before the European Court of Human Rights. That is to say, the law is inconsistent, ambiguous and leaves women in the position where they have to travel to England to get an abortion. Despite being a UK citizen, a woman from Northern Ireland has to pay for her abortion, and travel to get it.

EL: What are the number of women who have to do that?

AS: We have a very small population in Northern Ireland of about one and a half million. It is conservatively estimated that about 2000 women a year travel to England for abortion, which is quite alot when you consider the number of women of reproductive age in the population. The estimate is conservative is because the figures are based on women going to private abortion clinics who give their addresses in Northern Ireland. Of course there are many women who do not do so, because they are terrified that others may find out they have travelled to England for an abortion. I recently had a 'phone call from the Progressive Unionist Party, and the women I spoke to admitted she had transported 13 women to England for abortion, and not one of them gave their real address.

EL: What are the different positions of the political parties on abortion?

AS: Officially or unofficially! Sinn Fein have released a statement saying they support the right of a woman to choose an abortion, but not that it should be available in Northern Ireland, which therefore avoids the issue. Generally, no matter where the party is on the political spectrum, they do not want abortion to be available in Northern Ireland.

During the first Peace Process, there was a terrible fear among politicians that this would bring abortion to Northern Ireland. You would think it would be the last issue in their minds, but in fact there was a cross-party delegation of politicians totally opposed to each others views, who had a joint delegation to John Major. I believe the content of what they said was to warn the British Government against doing anything to liberalise the abortion law in Northern Ireland. This was the position of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland at the time the SACHR report I mentioned previously was released. The law has only been debated once in Northern Ireland. There was only one politician who admitted that all politicians in Northern Ireland are men, who have no idea what it is like to be a woman faced with an unwanted pregnancy. He was shouted down by the rest. Another said that Adolf Hitler had more charity in him than abortionists.

EL: Why do politicians look at abortion that way? Are they responding to public opinion? Are they like some British politicians who are not anti-abortion, but do not want to be associated with what they see as a controversial issue?

AS: I think they are anti-abortion themselves. My organisation, the FamilyPlanning Association, does alot of advocacy work about abortion, yet not a

Single MP has ever contacted me to ask what the situation is like for women. If they are not finding out about the stance of pro-choice organisations, how can they possibly have an idea bout what public opinion is? There have been three surveys done which have shown that the majority of people in Northern Ireland favour provision of abortion in Northern Ireland. Politicians are ignoring that, and also ignoring the women travelling to go and have an abortion. I think it comes back to their own personal viewpoint. It is also only now that women are beginning to creep into politics in Northern Ireland. Women are very active on a community level in Northern Ireland, as a result of the Troubles. It does worry me, because as the situation changes, prisoners are released, men go back to their communities, I am not sure that women will be accepted as activists, An d there may be a struggle over whether women should be pushed back into the home.

EL: Tony, could you now explain the situation in the Republic.

TO'B: As Audrey has said, the Republic starts from the same base line, with The Offences Against the Person Act, that rules out abortion altogether in the Republic of Ireland. In 1983, fearful that Ireland might follow Britain down the route of legal abortion, a constitutional referendum was called that inserted into the Irish Constitution what was called the Pro-Life Amendment. This effectively conferred equal rights upon the fetus. The state was obligated to defend and vindicate the right to life of the unborn, with only due regard to the equal right to life of the mother. This amendment was really designed to ensure no politician could ever change the 1861 Act and bring in 1967 Act style legislation.

I want to put Irish abortion policy in a wider context, that of the sexual health and sexual politics debate in Ireland. Until 1973 it was a legal requirement that any civil servant who was a woman getting married gave up her job. This was only dispensed with when Ireland joined the then European Community. Until 1979, so-called artificial contraception was outlawed in Ireland. It was not possible to gain a license to manufacture or sell contraception. The pill of course was widely prescribed for 'other purposes' leading to very high rates of menstrual irregularity! That is the context in which the 1983 referendum was debated. The debate was very fierce and confrontational, centring upon the idea that Ireland must not follow Britain down the path of 'murdering babies'.

What followed from that was something that I think nobody expected. The constitutional provision was used to do a number of things: to close down counselling services giving information about abortion or pregnancy counselling; to censor imported magazines that might have adverts in them for British abortion clinics; to bring about injunctions against student unions that might be giving information about abortion. There were a whole series of measures that went way beyond simply preventing abortion from being legalised in Ireland.

After 1967, Ireland had had a level of backstreet abortion, although it was difficult to say how many. Mainly, Ireland simply exported abortion to Britain. From 1983 onwards, every avenue of assistance through which women could travel to get abortion was systematically closed down. The most effective means of getting information quite literally became the taxi driver at the other end of the boat-train from Holyhead.

In 1992, something very dramatic then happened. There was an earth-shattering case in Irish terms where a 14 year old girl, pregnant as a result of rape, determined with her parents that she should terminate that pregnancy and travel to England for that purpose. Before doing so, her parents asked the Irish police if a fetal tissue sample would suffice as DNA evidence against her rapist. As a result of that, the Attorney General of Ireland sought an injunction restraining her and her family from leaving the country, or if they had being able to return, so that she could not proceed with her termination of pregnancy. That was something that nobody had contemplated when the pro-life amendment was put into the constitution.

The Supreme Court ultimately overturned the High Court injunction, and the consequence of that was that Irish people could no longer abstract abortion as something that happened somewhere else. The result was a new amendment in the Constitution, so that the 1983 amendment could no longer restrict the right to travel, or restrict access to information.

In 1997, according to official British statistics, which are likely to be wrong for exactly the same reasons that Audrey stated for the Northern Ireland, there were about 3336 women from the Irish Republic who had abortions in England and Wales last year. At the end of last year, because politicians had refused to take action on the central issue of access to abortion in Ireland, another girl who was this time 13 and also raped found herself at the centre of court proceedings about whether or not she could have an abortion. This time she was given permission, but for the vast majority of women it means an expensive, lonely journey to England. The consequences of having such a case are in any case dire, with the details splashed across the papers, so much so that most people could probably tell you who the girl at the centre of the case in 1997 is. It was reported recently that the father of the girl in the 1992 case had hanged himself.

Officially in Ireland we don't have any abortion. A pregnancy that is conceived in Ireland and agonised over in Ireland, and the decision to terminate made in Ireland apparently isn't an Irish abortion, because it is terminated in England.

EL: Your organisation, the IFPA has recently made a submission to an Inter-Departmental Working Group on abortion in Ireland. Why has the Government set this up, and could you say whether that represents a positive development?

TO'B: After the case in 1992, one of things the Irish Government tried to do was to reverse the judgement in that case, called the 'X' Case. The Supreme Court judgement in that case effectively meant that where there was a real and substantial risk to the life of the woman as a result of pregnancy, which in that case did include a risk of 'self-destruction' or suicide, then a right to abortion existed. This was not a right to travel, but a right to abortion. The Government choose to respond to that by asking people to reverse the Supreme Court decision, by putting down an amendment that would effectively remove the category of suicidal thoughts or 'self-destruction' as a ground for abortion in Ireland. They were defeated by 65 per cent in the referendum. They had made in clear in advance that if defeated, they would bring in legislation that would resolve the inconsistency between the 1861 Act and the Constitution, the latter supposedly taking precedence and creating a right to abortion in certain circumstances. They refused to do that and introduce legislation on information and make it easy to get counselling. No firm proposals were put down, which was the 'C' case came to light . The response to this case was to set up the Inter-Departmental Working Group, which called for submissions, and should publish proposals, which we are currently awaiting.

EL: Is there any other way of pushing things forward?

TO'B: Public opinion is the central determinant. Public Opinion has changed very dramatically in the last five years. In the Irish Times, there was a report about a independent poll of a very large, representative sample of the public in the aftermath of the 'C' case, in which they asked people about circumstances in which they might or might not support the availability of abortion facilities in abortion. Only 18 per cent were prepared to say there were no circumstances in which they could envisage supporting the provision of abortion facilities. 67 per cent supported the provision of facilities where necessary to save the life of the pregnant woman. The proportion tailed off to about 24 per cent for facilities where abortion was wanted for any reason. This has shown how much things have changed. People are increasingly aware that, using ONS 1996 statistics, one in ten of all Irish conceptions ends in an abortion in England. In women under 25, that rises to 21.5 per cent. It is the function of organisations like my own to ensure that those facts cannot be ignored, and that something is done about the fact that Irish people, as opposed to Irish politicians feel the need for change. I think that despite the unwillingness of Irish politicians at the moment to put proposals forward, that will sooner or later have to respond to that change in public opinion.

EL: Audrey, in England, pro-choice organisations are keen to highlight the problems facing women from Northern Ireland. To what degree would you perceive there to be a way of mobilising people in Northern Ireland itself to bring about change?

AS: It is interesting listening to Tony speak about the fact that there are some discussions taking place at the Government level in the Republic about what to do, whereas in Northern Ireland that simply isn't happening. Northern Ireland is supposed to be more progressive than the Republic, but they at least have the Inter-Departmental Working Group. Also in the Republic they have a relationships and sexuality education programme in place and in Northern Ireland we have not even looked at this since 1987.

So there seems to be more movement in the Republic than the North, which makes me wonder why that is happening. I went to a conference in Amsterdam, and listened to a gynaecologist from an African country talking about how abortion is illegal in his country. He said he spoke at alot events to bring to light the reality of the situation in his country. He was prepared to speak about abortion, but we can't get anyone - not a GP, a gynaecologist, a nurse, even a care assistant. We can't get anyone from the medical profession to talk about what is wrong with the situation in Northern Ireland. When I look at what is happening in the Republic, I think that Northern Ireland isn't even a Third World country. It's a Fourth World country.

There seems to be an extraordinary fear about abortion. It is interesting with the start of the Assembly that anti-choice groups seem to have a belief that once the Assembly comes into place we will get abortion in Northern Ireland. I don't know why they think this, since I think it could be even worse, and we may get an even more restrictive law. We could find ourselves with a law like the Republic. Anti-choice groups have started to do some really vicious picketing, for example at the Brook Clinic. This opening in 1992, but they are still picketing it, on the basis that they think Brook does abortion referrals. In fact Brook doesn't do this - they give out the FPA number, and we do the referrals.

Regardless, they stand outside the clinic, they call the doctors and staff by name and call them murderers. They are very active, but we cannot gain the same level of activity on the pro-choice side. I think this is because it is much easier to motivate people against something. People seem to do less when they are for it. Unless we get a case like the ones Tony has talked about, then I don't think much will happen.
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