Culture and community: reframing the abortion debate in Northern Ireland

One of the unexpected results of the recent UK general election was undeniably the sudden projection of the the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party into commonplace political discussion. Over recent years, internal Northern Irish political tensions were largely overlooked elsewhere; mainstream political discourse favouring a shortsighted Londoncentric understanding centred on Westminster politics. Overnight, the DUP became the most googled party, and our twitter and Facebook feeds were increasingly littered with self-affirmed experts on Unionism and Irish politics throwing their two cents in. Most commonly, these critics reduced and sensationalised the DUP’s political identity as a rigidly conservative party, infamous for being anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ and climate change deniers. Unsurprisingly, this ignited critiques of Theresa May’s willingness to cooperate with a party who seemed to represent morals and beliefs at odds with our own.

Presently, almost a thousand women a year travel to mainland Britain and pay around £900 to terminate unwanted pregnancies. Since the Democratic Unionist MP Ian Paisley Jr warned that his party would not compromise its hard-line stance on abortion, Welsh and Scottish governments have joined the UK government in offering free abortions to Northern Irish women, in order to head off a Commons revolt on the Queen’s speech, and demonstrating popular parliamentary commitment to women’s reproductive rights. Although shrouded as supporting Irish women’s rights, this gesture seems somewhat superficial, and has arguably actually prevented legislation changes within Ireland by reducing the pressure on the government to change the law in favour of treating women in their home country.

Other commentators have pointed out that the DUP’s unprogressive standpoint on such issues are not particularly distinctive in Northern Ireland: Labour’s sister party (the SDLP) also opposes extending the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland; their MLA’s even rejecting legislative adjustments for fatal foetal abnormality and sexual crime cases. Thus the projection of the DUP into the political mainstream has also served to expose more general differences between Northern Irish political and cultural stances on reproductive rights and experiences such as my own growing up thankfully with an availability of resources and away from stigma.

Northern Ireland is not, and has never been, simply an extension of Britain, and it is only a sign of our own ignorance that we were shocked by the DUP’s seemingly staunch policies on abortion, amongst others. I wanted to explore how and why some of Europe’s most restrictive abortion laws have arisen and been maintained in Northern Ireland. It is important we recognise that to tackle and change the Northern Irish female experience, we must also acknowledge that their local political and societal culture should not be reduced simply to a parallel of British politics easily integrated into our existing scope. A more nuanced and explorative discussion that addresses the unique history, culture and society of Northern Ireland is necessary, rather than resting on the assumption that a replication of English women’s rights struggles could be echoed across the Irish sea.

To effectively lobby towards the legalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland, it is necessary to contextually situate the debate. After all, matters such as abortion choices are wrapped up in the cultural context of social responsibilities. Traditional individualistic rights-based approach popular elsewhere that emphasise a woman’s right to her body as personal property understate social context and ostracises communities like Northern Ireland, where the language of responsibilities and moral communities is integral. These types of arguments construct each pregnant female as an individual citizen, and tend to be reduced to an oppositional impasse between women’s rights and those ascribed to a foetus. Although pregnancy is a personal experience, there is undeniably a social nature of reproduction that needs to be addressed. Turning our sociological imagination to abortion reveals the relationships between family, state, and society. Bearing the social in mind, there could be room for constructing a rights-based argument that addresses the rights of the collective female role, as restrictive reproductive rights have direct implications for equality in treatment of women. The criminalisation of abortion definitively affects women’s position and privilege as a social group. The abortion issue thus saddles the individual and the social, and a holistic approach would recognise both of these within a local context.

For example, Elisabeth Porter notes how the responsibility and expectation of women to nurture is deep-rooted in Northern Irish culture, embedded in a history of doctrinal conservatism. Historically, women have occupied key roles as prime nurturers, strengthening bonds between kin and community. Framing abortion rights as an individual rights claim neglects to address any social consequences women may experience if they are seen to be rejecting these standards, felt both personally and externally. After all, this choice is not an isolated one; any decision made will be affected by the prevailing moral climate and social networks, and adhering to existing discursive narratives. Rather than engaging in an abstract ‘rights’ based argument, actual social experience of sex, parenthood, seuxality, gender relations, and the family must be voiced. It is within this framework of social commitments to nurture that we must construct an effective abortion rights lobby.

A consideration of the social experiences of pregnancy and mothering could enable us to deconstruct and redefine traditional representations of ‘women’ and ‘family’ and what it means to be Irish and involuntarily pregnant. Far too often, women are categorised into boxes that deny them a chance to exert any credible agency, e.g. over-emotional and irrational, resulting in the opinions of others such as medical professionals pertaining precedence over a woman’s own. Challenging common notions of womanhood such as the hysterical female or the dutily maternal paves the way for a refocusing of perception which could project women instead as rational, self-determining, responsible and mature: the best person to consider the needs of herself and the foetus. This could open up a space where the choice is not reduced to either the right to choose an abortion or the responsibility to care for another. In fact, the notion of ‘responsibility’ could offer a ground of common territory within the abortion debate. Both pro-life and pro-choice activists advocate responsible sex, good parenting, and caring communities. An interrogation of this shared common purpose could bolster efforts to proceed with gaining Northern Irish women reproductive rights, rather than remaining stuck on the tired competing claims of mother rights vs. foetal rights; religious beliefs vs. secularist views.

This topic also broaches the subject of the relation between public opinion and legislation. Should issues should be left to a nation’s popular consensus, as David Cameron decided to with the referendum on the UK’s involvement in the European. Alternatively, are there instances where it is appropriate for a government to push through legislation against the public’s preference, as Harold Wilson’s government did to secure the criminalisation of capital punishment for murder, despite over three quarters of the population supporting for the death penalty. This raises important questions about the direction of social change and who the actors responsible for it are. What is the nature of the relationship between popular public morality and governmental imposed legislation? Are cultural norms filtered down from authoritative bodies, or is there opportunity for grassroots movements and ideas to impact the mainstream?

UPDATE: Regarding the symbiosis between public opinion and official legislation, Henry McDonald reported on statistics that demonstrate a clear majority (70%) would vote to repeal the 1983 section of the Irish constitution that awards a foetus with equal rights to a pregnant woman’s. However, only 24% of voters are in favour of bringing Ireland’s abortion law in line with the UK – where terminations are legal in all circumstances,  through to the middle of the second trimester –  what prime minister Leo Varadkar tastelessly refers to as ‘abortion on demand.’ A referendum is planned for summer of 2018, where it is unlikely that the Irish public would vote for full liberalisation of the law. Referendums are a particularly touchy subject in the aftermath of the UK’s agitating decision to leave the EU last summer – where it has been argued that the general public are not qualified to determine such an immense outcome, and certainly not in a simplified yes/no vote when the realities are far more complex. A public vote also begs the question: is it the correct situation for a principally female issue to be affected by the vote of a male population – most of whom may never have to feel personally effected by this law.


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