Abortion remains one of the most contentious and divisive social issues in Northern Ireland. Those on either side of the argument seek an absolute answer in line with their thinking. Even those seeking the middle ground find themselves attacked from either side. Decisions taken in Parliament and the High Court mean that change is coming. Absolutes on either side will not define the future.
Thirty years ago I worked for the ambulance service. One evening while on duty we received a call to a house where someone was reported to have attempted suicide. When we arrived at the scene I went to the door, we had been given few details. The door was answered by a young woman in her late 20s early 30s dressed in a business suit and holding a glass of white wine. She was upset that we had come to the house and she asked us to leave. It was clear from the empty packets of prescription medicine on the coffee table that she had taken an overdose. She had telephoned a friend in England to tell her what she had done, her friend had phoned for the ambulance. She refused to go to the hospital. At that time we carried blue cards which if a patient refused treatment they would sign and we would leave. I declined to give her a card to sign, I was concerned that the overdose she had taken would be fatal. She stated again that she would not go to hospital if asked, I accepted her point and advised her that at a point she would be unconscious, she would be incapable of refusing treatment and I would take her to hospital. I told her that she would not die that evening and the only thing we were discussing was how ill she was going to be by the time I got her to a doctor. Her mood changed and while she still refused to go to hospital she started to answer questions about what had happened. She had started with a glass of wine and became upset because she had recently had an abortion, the more upset she got the more wine she drank until she convinced herself to take an overdose. The decision to have an abortion wasn’t an easy one but she had no one to talk to, it was not something that anyone in Northern Ireland talked about. She had a professional career and the choice was simple her career or a family, there was for her at that time no alternative. As the overdose took effect she realised that one way or another she was going to hospital and after I assured her that she would get the help she needed she agreed to go to hospital.
The young woman’s experience has been repeated many thousands of times since then. Her story is as relevant to today’s discussions as many thousands of other experiences.
Thirty years ago woman from Northern Ireland travelled to England to have abortions, they still travel. While those who support a pro-life message argue that abortion does not happen in Northern Ireland the reality is that for those who have the resources having an abortion is a choice they are prepared to make. The decision at Westminster to remove the limits on abortion in Northern Ireland was taken because of a failure of the Stormont administration to consider any legislation. So polarised is our society on this issue that any discussion which involves either side moving from their absolute beliefs is deemed erroneous. In truth the final position will not satisfy either side of the argument but there must be some attempt at addressing the concerns of both sides, there must be some attempt to find common ground on which both sides can agree.
The young woman I took to hospital had been faced with a choice her career or having a family. It is not uncommon for a young woman to still face this decision. Recently it was reported that a young woman was awarded £28,000 as she was discriminated against for being pregnant. A simple Internet search for stories about woman being discriminated against in the workplace because they become pregnant provides a litany of examples. These are only the ones where woman take legal action, in how many other cases do woman feel pressurised to have an abortion. This is compounded by research findings which show one in eight companies are reluctant to hire women who may become pregnant. (1) Recently, when discussing promotions within a public sector organisation a senior executive advised me that while I thought a member of staff was very good at her job she was actually unreliable. Having never witnessed anything which called into question that staff member’s reliability I asked what was the problem. The answer was that while she was good she was always off having babies. The fact that society continues to force women to choose between a career and family means that abortions will continue to happen irrespective of the law in Northern Ireland. Surely there is a point of common cause between pro-life and pro-choice advocates which recognises that addressing this issue amongst others will reduce the number of abortions by removing the societal pressure for woman to choose between having a career and having a family. Any genuine attempt to improve quality of life for woman must include far stricter penalties for any business limiting the career opportunities for woman who choose to have a family.
Of course career opportunities are only one of the challenges that women face, in many cases poverty rather than career is the challenge that woman face. Struggling to bring up children on the edge of poverty and becoming pregnant again presents women with another choice. It is a choice forced upon them by society, the welfare system that exists today is becoming less and less focused on providing the resources for families to live without work. The drive to present work as the best option delivers for men either with or without a family it does not meet the needs of women either in or out of a relationship. A recent report from the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) (2) details the challenges that families and especially lone parents face in relation to keeping above the poverty threshold. As CPAG state “A lone parent working full-time on the ‘national living wage’ will be 20% (£74 per week) short of what they need to achieve a minimum standard of living.” (3) Any discussion on reducing the number of abortions must include a real commitment to improving the financial well-being of families.
As part of that discussion there is a real need to improve the provision of childcare in Northern Ireland. A recent report by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions details the challenges faced by families and women in particular in accessing childcare and the impact on their careers including the reliance on part time employment. (4) A cross party commitment in Northern Ireland to providing the 30 hours of free childcare available across the rest of the United Kingdom means making difficult budgetary choices elsewhere but in the context of improving the quality of life for women it is a key element.
The experience of mothers in terms of the support they receive in the first few years of motherhood can define their future desire to have more children. As society changes and the knowledge and experience within families varies greatly the provision of services such as SureStart are vital in providing a supportive environment. In all of this while the rights of women and the unborn form the basis of the debate the responsibilities of fathers are too often ignored. Women cannot be left to bear the sole responsibility for raising children, yet too often they are, a greater emphasis on the responsibility men have must form part of the narrative about how society develops a better framework for raising children and ensuring true equality for women.
If we are serious about reducing the number of abortions then we must also be serious about the teaching of sex education, relationship education call it whatever, to teenagers. Those who argue that abstinence is the only answer ignore the reality that such teaching is not on its own effective. (5) By all means teach abstinence but as part of a comprehensive sex education programme which supports the physical and mental well-being of all citizens irrespective of gender or sexual orientation.
The message for Northern Ireland is clear abortion happens and is accessed by women from Northern Ireland. Nothing you currently do will change that and legislatively things will change and there will be safe, legal and local access to services. Along with those changes there must be a focus on improving the quality of life of women and children to change the nature of the decision that women take. There must also be recognition on the other side of the debate, this is not about being pro-choice, the reason many women take the decision to have an abortion is because they honestly feel that in our society they have no choice. We all have a responsibility to change that.
(5) https://www.forbes.com/sites/janetwburns/2017/08/23/research-confirms-the-obvious-that abstinence-only-education-hurts-kids/#5b71cd286615