Fionnuala O Connor: Conflicting abortion decisions show we live in unpredictable times
Events in London and Belfast last Thursday had no linked cause but the oddest connection all the same, and a third topped them off neatly. Nothing here changes, eh?
First a senior Belfast court threw out the 2015 judgment that by refusing abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality or sexual crime, Northern Ireland legislation breaches the European Convention on Human Rights. Hours later the British government said that Northern Ireland women who travel for abortion will have free NHS treatment.
And in the middle of the day it became clear that the DUP and Sinn Féin were not about to meet that day’s ‘final’ deadline to set up a Stormont executive.
In the court of appeal the Lord Chief Justice with two colleagues deemed abortion a matter for ‘the legislature.’ It seemed irrelevant that the legislature is not functioning.
Short layperson’s version: not for them to decide, properly the concern of elected politicians, no consensus, a thorny subject. You should read their separate and laborious judgments for yourselves.
A woman who had hoped the judges would uphold the earlier finding, eyes full of tears, was too angry to speak clearly.
Sarah Ewart, composed though ‘totally devastated’, was in the court because she sparked the case which produced the now dismissed judgment.
She also appeared on Thursday on the much-watched Victoria Derbyshire programme, in a recorded interview, in which she explained very calmly, as she has many times, that in 2013 she went to England for an abortion Northern Ireland doctors could not perform, after a scan showed her baby’s head had not developed. ‘There was nothing from above its eyes.’
After Thursday’s judgments her mother, Jane Christie, wondered how the assembly could decide ‘when it isn’t there.’
Her daughter’s case has already taken years and the Lord Chief Justice finished with permission for an appeal to the Supreme Court. But a woman cannot pause a pregnancy, as Christie said, while the law and politics deliberate.
Precious Life’s Bernie Smyth was also in court, then outside celebrating with youthful picketers.
She also appeared in the Derbyshire programme, being asked as before did she believe women must be made to carry babies they cannot bear to. She avoids a direct answer. She says that abortion kills babies.
But last Thursday their lordships could scarcely have doffed their wigs, before Westminster offered respite to northern women who make decisions according to their own consciences.
Theresa May’s shaky government volunteered that NHS arrangement for their own survival.
The Tories lining up to support Labour MP Stella Creasy’s proposal of it signalled the dislike many feel of the May-DUP deal.
Not for Belfast to decide NHS treatment, said Ian Paisley Junior, perhaps signalling DUP clear-sightedness about the limits of their influence.
Creasy’s effort was genuine. There was also bogus outrage as well as genuine, amazed, ignorance, that British citizens are so deprived of rights enjoyed in Great Britain.
Both major parties have always bowed to unionist/nationalist shared opposition to extension of British provision.
In 2010 Labour backed off a rare moment of courage when they needed DUP votes to extend legal police detention time.
The odd character of the north’s biggest political party flickers in and out of Westminster’s consciousness.
As it does in Dublin, where lawmakers are happier to live with the knowledge that they export their abortion problem to Britain than do anything about it. Anti-Orange cartoons will pass, plus nasty fun at the expense of Arlene Foster in particular. The sorest bit is probably to be labelled ‘Irish.’
And the DUP are not, of course, the only block here to denying women bodily autonomy.
Most other unionists and a fair share of Alliance are also determined that whatever exceptions their hearts might urge, there must be no feminist ‘right to choose’. In line with Catholic teaching the SDLP will not even exempt cases like Sarah Ewart’s, although Sinn Féin has fought two successful elections now with their softer line.
Supported by donors throughout Ireland and Britain the Abortion Support Network will try to help with travel and accommodation.
Because although the NHS will now provide, someone here who wants an English abortion has to head off without a doctor’s advice and referral, and needs money. It’s still hardest on the poorest. But a day that began badly in court took an unexpected turn, with a push from Stella Creasy’s campaign.
Though mainly thanks to the fragile May government, the DUP’s new partners in power-sharing. Flukey business, politics; no wonder commentators get things wrong.