Advocacy Works: changing NI attitudes on abortion03/05/2016As part of Amnesty International’s season of seminars on abortion reform Dawn Purvis gave a talk entitled ‘Advocacy by Doing’ at Queens University on the 26th of April.
Dawn’s talk was very enlightening and encouraging as she demonstrated how, although we have a long way to go, advocacy is changing attitudes on abortion in Northern Ireland.
Abortion is not illegal in NI. The medical procedure is heavily restricted but it is possible. However, many GPs are ignorant of the law and many clinicians will only provide abortion services to their own patients. This makes access to abortion a lottery with the option of paying to go to England only available to those who can afford it. Grassroots activists lobbied Marie Stopes about this inequality and a clinic was opened in Belfast in October 2012 in an attempt to provide a clear pathway for all women. Opposition from Stormont was quite fierce, the Health Minister asked the Chief Constable to investigate the clinic and the Attorney General overstepped his remit when he asked the Justice Committee to investigate. In spite of these challenges the clinic remains open.
However, like much advocacy work it’s two steps forward one step back. With abortion firmly on the agenda draft guidelines were published in April 2013 ostensible to help health care professionals navigate the law. They had the opposite effect with clinicians who had carried out terminations in the past in cases of fatal foetal abnormality (FFA) now refusing to do so. These were just draft guidelines but they forced women to continue with unviable pregnancies. Sarah Ewart went public with her case when she was denied an abortion because of this and had to go to England. Sarah Ewart’s campaign changed the kind of language MLA’s used to discuss abortion with less emotive, more moderate language being used. Once again advocacy was having a real impact, before Marie Stopes opened only two MLAs were openly pro-choice but after the opening of the clinic and Sarah Ewart’s campaign around FFA 40 MLAs out of 108 voted in favour of abortion reform in 2013.
Dawn’s talk demonstrated that advocacy by ordinary women is changing attitudes to abortion in Northern Ireland. If we keep reproductive rights on the agenda by raising the issue on the doors, at hustings events and ultimately at the polls we will succeed because advocacy works.