OPINION: ‘Political debate on abortion in Northern Ireland – where hypocrisy looms large’

Fiona Bloomer. (Photo: Nigel McDowell/Ulster University)

By Fiona Bloomer, Senior Lecturer in Social Policy at Ulster University

On December 14, 2021, the Northern Ireland Assembly met to consider a bill that would remove access to abortion in cases of severe fetal impairment. The proposed change was sponsored by Paul Givan MLA (DUP), and following his move to First Minister, Christopher Stalford MLA (DUP).

The position of the bill’s sponsors was that to allow for abortions on grounds of severe fetal impairment was a blatant form of disability discrimination. In their defence of the proposed case both Givan and Stalford expressed deep concern for those with disabilities and the stigma they faced in society.

However, what they categorically failed to do was to explain how their party policies had failed to materially improve the lives of those with disabilities. How for instance many families had been left in dire circumstances following cutbacks to respite services, cutbacks to educational support, cutbacks for carers and how the DUP had singularly failed to be an advocate for people with disabilities.

Inherent too within the language of the debate from DUP MLAs was a blatant disregard for the wealth of evidence provided by health professionals as to the need for provision of abortion in cases of severe fetal impairment. This was either ignored or dismissed without any substance. As Paula Bradshaw MLA (Alliance) had pointed out, fetal medicine specialists train for over 15 years to be experts in this area of speciality. As made clear in their evidence to the health committee these specialists bring with them to this role a wealth of compassion and understanding of what a severe fetal diagnosis means to families. They talk through with families their options, providing support and referral pathways for those who wish to continue with the pregnancy and those that do not.

The focus of the proposed bill on the term ‘severe’ is important. Having observed the debate you could be forgiven for thinking abortions were possible up until birth for cases such as a clear diagnosis of cleft palate or downs syndrome. As the health professionals had explained, this is categorically not the case that. Rather cases are highly complex, and almost all are dealt with closer to the 24th week of the pregnancy.

As Gerry Caroll MLA (PBP) pointed out there was also an absence of consideration from the DUP of what a disabled woman might want in terms of abortion. The voices of those with disabilities who are prochoice was ignored.

And whilst the DUP’s position has been slated for its hypocrisy, let us not forget Sinn Fein, whose party policy is that the law in Northern Ireland should be the same as that in the Republic of Ireland – this includes a limitation on abortions on the grounds of severe impairment.

Thus whilst Sinn Fein MLAs voted to oppose the DUP proposals on December 14, the party policy is to match the law in the Republic of Ireland and thus limit abortions on the grounds of severe impairment.

Despite the clear hypocrisy from the DUP and flaws within the Sinn Fein policy we can be hopeful that the majority of MLAs opposed the bill (42 MLAs voted in support of the bill, 45 voted in opposition) and that we saw strong defence of the law across several parties.

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