Abortion: Susan McKay's view

SUSAN McKAY responds to Detail Data's report on women travelling for abortion. In this comment piece, she calls for compassion, respect, dignity and support for all women.

Compassion. Respect. Dignity. Support. These are what Sarah Ewart wanted and needed when she learned that the pregnancy about which she and her husband and family had been so excited was going to end in heartbreak.

She would either have to go through the full pregnancy knowing that it would inevitably end with a long birth followed soon after by the death of the baby, or she was going to have to leave Northern Ireland and cross the sea to England for a termination.

Instead of compassion, respect and dignity she got a refusal to provide information. She got lip service from politicians. She got sent away “like something dirty and shameful.”

Now, as she explains in her powerful and moving account to Detail Data, she is terrified of getting pregnant again in case the whole “disgraceful nightmare” starts all over again.

Last month a series of cross border polls found that a considerable majority of people in Northern Ireland and in Ireland want the law changed so that women carrying a foetus with a fatal abnormality, as well as women who have been raped, will be able to have a termination without having to cross the Irish Sea. On both sides of the border more people felt that abortion should always be a woman’s choice than that it should never be available.

The High Court in Belfast has found that the law as it stands in the North is incompatible with the human rights of women. In the Republic, women are still in the ignominious position of having constitutional equality with a fertilised egg in their womb. The government’s response to the demand for long delayed legislation to enact the constitutional right to abortion when a woman’s life is at risk, was to bring in a law which puts women through a Kafkaesque process of investigation, with the threat of a substantial jail term for anyone who obtains or carries out an abortion other than on the narrowest of grounds.

Despite all of this, every year more than 5,000 women from the North and from the Republic are choosing to terminate a pregnancy by travelling out of this island. They include an unknown number of girl children who are pregnant as a result of rape or incest. Unknown numbers of women and girls are also inducing abortion at home by means of drugs obtained online. This is potentially dangerous and probably in many cases intensely lonely.

The Detail’s interactive map gives a vivid sense of the sad traffic of women to Manchester, Liverpool, and London, seeking a medical procedure which is available to women in other parts of the UK and the EU, but not here.

If you are on a train to a ferry port, or on a ship or a plane to England, you may well be in close proximity to one of these women or girls. If she is lucky, she will be accompanied by someone who loves her. If she is not, she will be alone.

So many women have experienced a sense of being banished. They are the victims of institutional hypocrisy. Successive political regimes on both parts of this island have acted as if these women have no rights, depending upon their silence, and their feelings of grief and shame to avoid having to acknowledge a sensitive social issue about which feelings run high.

Of course there are also women who want to end a pregnancy but cannot afford to travel or do not have the information they need. Women need to have the power to make their own decisions about their lives, including decisions about their fertility. They need to be able to get non-directive counselling that truly allows them to consider all the options. There is nothing “pro-life” about refusing to accept another person’s right to choose.

By no means all women who decide to go for a termination are in the extreme circumstances arising from rape or fatal foetal abnormality. Unplanned pregnancies happen. Contraception fails. Relationships fall apart. Women feel they cannot cope with having a baby for a whole range of reasons.

The vast majority of abortions are carried out within a few weeks of the woman finding out she is pregnant. Nobody wants to have an abortion, but for some women it is not a difficult decision. For others it is out of the question because of their personal beliefs. Some women have an abortion and regret it. All of these women and all of the girls deserve compassion, respect, dignity and support.

  • To read Detail Data's news article on women travelling for abortions, click here.

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