Abortion was legalised 30 years ago in Britain. It is still illegal in Northern Ireland. Tony Blair has gone out of his way to emphasis that the North is and will remain part of the United Kingdom. Yet he has also said there are no plans to give women in the North the same right to abortion as women in the rest of the UK.
In spite of abortion remaining illegal, women over the age of 20 in the North of Ireland are as likely to have an abortion as a woman of the same age in Britain. There has been much publicity about the 5,000 or so women who travel from the South of Ireland for abortions. Less is heard about the 1,800 women from the North who travel every year to Britain to terminate a pregnancy that's 40 women every week.
Many of these abortions are later than is usual for women in Britain. Up to 18 percent of women from the North are more than 12 weeks pregnant, compared to the norm of about 11 percent, and twice as many are more than 16 weeks pregnant. These later abortions happen for one reason money, or, to be precise, lack of money.
That abortion is a class question, rather than a moral one, is nowhere clearer than in the North of Ireland. Abortion is available locally, for those with the money to book into one of the private hospitals for a 'D and C'. Doctors and nurses admit in private that this is so. But the cost of operations in private hospitals is counted in thousands of pounds.
There are backstreet abortions and five women are known to have died as a result of illegal abortion over the last 30 years. For most women, the journey to England for a legal abortion is the preferred option. The catch is that it costs £300 to £350 to pay for the operation in a non-profit making clinic plus £150 or so for travel. For many working class women, especially those living on benefits or in low paid jobs, this is an impossible amount to raise in just a few weeks. Everyone knows someone forced to continue an unwanted pregnancy because of lack of money.
According to government figures, some 60,000 women from the North have had abortions in Britain since 1967. This may be an underestimate because some women give a British address, either for fear of discovery or to overcome the rule which says that women from outside Britain have to be there for 24 hours before the operation.
Young women are those with the least choice. Those under 20 make up 27 percent of abortions in Britain, but only 20 percent of those from Northern Ireland. Parents are willing to help teenage daughters but many young women delay telling parents or friends and leave too little time for the money to be found.
The Tories always justified their refusal to extend the act on the grounds that there was little support for abortion in Northern Ireland. Whatever the case 30 or even 20 years ago, this is clearly no longer so. With women now making up 49 percent of the workforce in the North, most women want to be able to control their fertility. Attitudes to abortion have changed dramatically north as well as south of the border. Opinion polls and social attitude surveys show that 79 percent of those questioned support the availability of abortion under the provisions of the 1967 act.
Unfortunately, Mowlam and Blair continue to chant the Tory mantra that there is no reason to legalise abortion in the North because all the MPs are against it. When the Brook Advisory Centre opened in Belfast in 1992, all the MPs were against that too. Nationalist and Unionist politicians did the seemingly impossible and united against it. Paisley stood side by side with Catholic bigots and promised they would maintain a picket until the Brook Centre closed.
Hundreds of mainly young people, both Catholic and Protestant, marched together through the streets of Belfast to demonstrate support for their right to information about sexuality and birth control. Five years on there is such a demand for its services from the young people of Belfast that Brook is expanding its opening hours. The bigots have crawled back under their usual rocks.
Isn't it time abortion was legalised in every part of the so called United Kingdom?