After the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar in pregnancy, after being admitted to Galway Hospital and refused an abortion, most socialists are aware of the reactionary role of the Catholic hierarchy over women’s rights in Ireland (see Ireland and the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act/). The following article, written by J. M. Thorn of Socialist Democracy (Ireland), highlights the equally reactionary role of Protestant bigotry in this regard in Northern Ireland.

Edwin Poots, DUP Health Minister at Stormont and anti-abortionist
Edwin Poots, DUP Health Minister at Stormont and anti-abortionist

Abortion rights are extremely limited in the North of Ireland. Terminations can only be legally carried out if pregnancy threatens the mother’s life, or if there is a long-term or permanent risk to her physical or mental health. Under these conditions there are around fifty terminations carried out within the health service each year.

However these very limited abortion rights have not prevented an attempt by the DUP health minister Edwin Poots to reduce them even further. The method he has used is the issuing of new draft guidelines on abortion for medical staff and institutions. The consequences of these new guidelines have recently been revealed in two cases of severe foetal abnormality that have come to public attention.

The first case is Lisburn woman Sarah Ewart who had to travel to England for a termination after her 20-week-old foetus was diagnosed with anencephaly (a condition where the skull and brain does not develop properly). She was told that a termination could not be performed within the Northern Ireland health service and that she would have to continue with the pregnancy until the foetus either died in the womb or at birth. Another woman then came forward to report a similar case. The woman – known only as Laura – was told that her unborn twins had anencephaly and would likely die in the womb, or if born, would have “absolutely no form of life whatsoever”. She too was told that she could not have a termination because of the legal restrictions.

While the existing law does not formally allow abortion in these situations, in practice an informal consensus has operated in the medical profession enabling a liberal interpretation. Poots has acted to restrict the freedom of action of the professionals. Sarah Ewart had to seek advice from the FPA offices in Belfast. Laura was denied information on the options for a termination outside of the jurisdiction. Her partner Chris believed that staff wanted to help but had “to stop themselves and say that they can’t help you and that they can’t do this.”


The reasons for such reluctance are obvious when we examine the new guidelines. Drafted with deliberately vague and intimidating wording they make a clear threat to medical staff who counsel women with crisis pregnancies. This is set up by creating doubt over whether it would be lawful to “advocate, or promote” the termination of such pregnancies in a jurisdiction where it would be legal. The document claims that this is a “grey area” requiring interpretation by the courts. Following from this it states that: “Health and social care professionals have a legal duty to refuse to participate in, and must report, any procedure that would not be lawful in Northern Ireland.” The implication here is that medical staff should report to the police any woman they know (or suspect) has travelled or intends to travel to England for an abortion. There is also a warning they if they fail to report any such suspicions they could face ten years in jail.

The guidelines are deliberately designed to intimidate medical staff and limit the abortion options available to women. Recently retired obstetrician Prof Jim Dornan has spoken out on their chilling effect. According to him they have caused a “mood of fear” across the health service. He also revealed that health trusts had sought legal advice over the implications of the draft guidelines and some had told staff to stop giving advice to pregnant women in cases of foetal abnormality.

Yet the reality is that the legal “grey area” is a complete contrivance. The right to provide information to assist a woman in accessing abortion facilities abroad was upheld by the European Court of Human Rights in 1993 and has been enshrined in law ever since. The DPP has also confirmed that there is no criminal offence if someone assists a woman in going to England for a lawful abortion. He said that he could “envisage no situation where anyone giving advice and assistance in that regard would fall foul of the law.”


The fact that Poots could ignore these long established legal precedents when drafting the guidelines shows the impunity with which the DUP are operating. Irrespective of what the law says they (along with most of the other parties in the Assembly) are determined to impose an effective ban on abortion in the north and to impede the ability of women to seek a termination outside of the jurisdiction.


In these circumstances it is an illusion to believe that any progressive change can come through the Assembly or even through judicial decisions. There is also no indication that the British Government is going to force a liberalisation of the north, even though the public anger surrounding these cases shows that only a minority of fundamentalists support this save control of women’s bodies. That has to be reflected in an active movement of women and the working class if this savagery and intimidation is to be stopped

J M Thorne

(first published in Socialist Democracy (Ireland), Oct/Nov. 2013 and posted on DUP bigots move to restrict abortion rights)