Monday, 11 March 2013

International Women's Day doesn't stretch to Northern Ireland

Friday may have be International Women's Day but tomorrow in the Northern Ireland Assembly it is likely to be anything but.

At the last minute the DUP and SDLP have added an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill.

Amendment 1
New Clause
After clause 11 insert -
‘Ending the life of an unborn child
Ending the life of an unborn child
11A.-(1) Without prejudice to section 58 and section 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 and section 25 of the Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1945 and subject to subsection (2) any person who ends the life of an unborn child at any stage of that child’s development shall be guilty of an offence and liable on conviction on indictment to a period of not more than ten years’ imprisonment and a fine.
(2) It shall be a defence for any person charged with an offence under this section to show-
(a) that the act or acts ending the life of an unborn child were lawfully performed at premises operated by a Health and Social Care Trust, or
(b) that the act or acts ending the life of the unborn child were lawfully performed without fee or reward in circumstances of urgency when access to premises operated by a Health and Social Care Trust was not possible.
(3) For the purposes of this section a person ends the life of an unborn child if that person does any act, or causes or permits any act, with the intention of bringing about the end of the life of an unborn child, and, by reason of any such act, the life of that unborn child is ended.
(4) For the purposes of this section ‘lawfully’ in subsection (2) means in accordance with any defence or exception under section 58 and section 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 and section 25 of the Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1945.’
The reason for this amendment if because for the first time last year a private abortion clinic was set up.Marie Stopes say that they are acting within the very strict Northern Ireland rules on terminations. But of course they operate outside the remit of the Northern Ireland Health Minister, who happens to be a male DUP MLA.

On Sunday Nicky Campbell's: Big Question came from Derry and the first issue was abortion. I heard one of the first contributors say that there was no demand or need for abortion on demand in Northern Ireland. However, there are 1000s of women from the island of Ireland who every year travel to England, Scotland or Wales to seek help with termination. But also there is an open letter that was published today, which over 100 women in Northern Ireland have been brave enough to sign.

We, the undersigned, have either taken the abortion pill or helped women to procure the abortion pill in order to cause an abortion here in Northern Ireland.  We represent just a small fraction of those who have used, or helped others to use, this method because it is almost impossible to get an NHS abortion here, even when there is likely to be a legal entitlement to one.  We know that Stormont Ministers and the Public Prosecution Service are aware that such abortions have been taking place in the region for some years, but are unwilling to prosecute for a range of reasons, at least partly to do with not wanting an open debate around the issue of when women here should have a right to abortion.

We are publishing this letter now because of the Givan/Magennis amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill which we believe is aimed at closing down the debate on abortion here, as much as it is about closing down Marie Stopes.  We want to emphasise that medical abortions happen in Northern Ireland on a daily basis but without any medical support or supervision. We were delighted when Marie Stopes came to Belfast as it meant that women who are unwell, and therefore eligible for a legal abortion, can access a doctor to supervise what we have done or helped others to do without medical help.
We live in the only part of the UK that still does not have a childcare strategy. We face huge cuts in children’s living standards if the Assembly passes the Welfare Reform Bill without major amendment. If our politicians showed as much zeal in protecting the lives of children who are already born, perhaps we would have fewer women seeking abortion because of poverty.
This is over something as small to those in the rest of the UK as taking an abortion pill. Something that women in the rest of the UK have the right to choose to do. But Northern Ireland never enacted the 1967 Abortion Act. Back street abortions still take place there, others scrap together the money they need to head over the water to get the help that those in England, Scotland and Wales take for granted up to the 24th week. In Northern Ireland it is only up to 7 weeks and only in the case of a medical necessity either for the baby or the mother's well being.

Tomorrow the Alliance and Green parties will be joined opposing this amendment by Sinn Féin, who say they are "not in favour of abortion" but believe that termination should be available where a pregnant woman's life was in danger. This amendment seems to take things back even further than that, which can happen with knee jerk reactionary bids to stop something just for the sake of it.

Nobody should be enslaved by ignorance or poverty is part of the Lib Dems very being and that is what this amendment is going to do. Enslave Northern Irish women not only in ignorance and poverty but also in fear.

It is time that the MLAs cared more about the lives of those born. Even if that means allowing same sex couples in stable relationships to adopt, like single LGBT people can (due to another badly thought out amendment). Instead they hastily work to try and protect the status quo when there is a need and desire for change in a growing number.

There are of course some who believe that "Every Sperm is Sacred" and that the progress of such along the fallopian tube is an hindrance to is an intention to bring about the end of the life of an unborn child. So while this rather badly worded amendment is debated will anyone question Boots, Tesco et al stocking condoms, or them being given out free at gay venues as a way that becomes illegal under said amendment.

In the meantime, here is a preview of the points made in tomorrow's debate from the DUP side of the chamber.

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