Given the substantial number of Members who want to participate in the debate this afternoon, I have had to introduce some time limits. Mr Wells will have 15 minutes to move the motion, and 15 minutes at the end to wind up.
There is one amendment on the Marshalled List which I have accepted for debate. Ms McWilliams will have 10 minutes to move the amendment and 10 minutes to wind up at the end. All other Members will have seven minutes, and we will have as many contributors as possible. The House will adjourn at 6.00 pm in any case.
I beg to move
That this Assembly is opposed to the extension of the Abortion Act 1967 to Northern Ireland.
Tuesday 20 June will be a very bad day for 530 unborn children in Great Britain because, today, their lives will be aborted.
Every 24 hours in hospitals in England, Scotland and Wales an average of 530 human beings are legally killed and disposed of under powers granted by the 1967 Abortion Act. By the time this debate concludes at 6.00 pm, another 88 children will have been killed through abortion. In hospitals throughout Britain, teams of surgeons will be trying to save the lives of unborn children in one ward, while down the corridor in the same hospitals, other teams will be destroying the lives of unborn children. Since the 1967 Act became law, 5·3 million abortions have been carried out in Great Britain — more than the populations of Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic combined, and almost the same number as the number of Jews who were murdered in Hitler’s death camps.
The main purpose of my motion is to ensure that this legalised carnage is not permitted in Northern Ireland by way of an extension of the 1967 Act to this part of the United Kingdom, and I am moving it today in support of the right to life of the unborn child, knowing that both communities are perhaps more united on this issue than on any other.
On leaving Northern Ireland, Dr Mo Mowlam said that her biggest regret was that she had failed to find an appropriate time to extend the Abortion Act here. It is my hope that her wish will never be granted. Human development is a continuous process, which starts at the moment of conception, when a unique human being is created. Within two weeks of conception a child’s head is distinct, and he has the basic functions of liver, brain and lungs. After 50 days he has fingers and toes, and by 11 weeks he can make facial expressions and even smile. By 20 weeks he has well-developed eyelids and fingernails, and 75% of the babies born between that time and 25 weeks survive. The chilling fact under the 1967 Abortion Act is that any of these babies can be killed, and legally. I said earlier that there have been 5·3 million abortions in Great Britain since 1967. The sad reality is that 98·6% of these children were perfectly healthy human beings carried by perfectly healthy mothers.
The vast majority of abortions have been carried out on the grounds of a perceived risk to the physical and mental health of the woman. However, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists has said
"there is no such danger in the majority of these cases, as the reason for termination is purely a social one".
When David Steel introduced his Bill in 1966 he claimed
"It was not the intention of the promoters of the Bill to leave a wide open door for abortion on request".
It was claimed that the Bill would merely clarify the law, enabling doctors to abort in borderline or difficult cases without the fear of prosecution. What has happened under the Abortion Act 1967 in the rest of the United Kingdom has in effect been abortion on demand. A Gallup opinion poll carried out in 1988 involved the interviewing of 746 gynaecologists — 40% of those practising at the time — and found that 85% had either worked or were working in NHS hospitals where abortion on demand was practised. As private clinics were opened, staffed by doctors prepared to operate on anyone ready to pay the fee, Britain became the abortion capital of the world.
Fortunately, the situation in Northern Ireland is quite different. The Abortion Act 1967 was never introduced here, and we do not have abortion on demand in the Province. Our law is a combination of statute — including the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 and the Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland) Act 1945 — and the 1939 case involving Dr Bourne. In Northern Ireland an abortion can take place only if one of the following conditions is satisfied: first, where the continuation of the pregnancy would lead to serious medical or psychological problems which would jeopardise the woman’s life; secondly, where there is mental subnormality in the case of the mother; thirdly, where there is proven contact with rubella or, as it is generally known, German measles; or, fourthly, where there is a substantial genetic risk of having a mentally handicapped child.
As a result of this more restrictive legislation in Northern Ireland, the number of abortions carried out in the Province is quite low. There were, for instance, 77 in the year 1997-98. In addition to this, women can travel from Northern Ireland to England for an abortion. The total number carrying out this journey peaked in 1990, when 1,855 women went to Liverpool or London. This declined substantially to 1,572 in 1997. It is estimated that, in total, 45,000 women from Northern Ireland have had abortions in Britain since the passing of the Abortion Act 1967. What is quite clear from these figures is that the number of Northern Ireland women having abortions since the passing of the Act is much lower because it has not been enacted here.
If the Abortion Act 1967 had been introduced in the Province 33 years ago we could have expected some 140,000 abortions, yet the number is less than a third of that. We have quite detailed information on the reasons for women from Northern Ireland travelling to the rest of the United Kingdom for abortions. In a parliamentary written answer to a Mr Blunt, a Conservative Member of Parliament, Miss Hewitt, Director of the Office of National Statistics, gave details of the abortions carried out on women from Northern Ireland in the period 1993-97. The total number of abortions in that period was exactly 8,000, and for 7,725 of those the reason given was the threat to the physical or mental health of the woman.
In the rest of the United Kingdom that is generally regarded as abortion on demand. There were few genuine medical reasons for those abortions; they were carried out for social reasons. Undoubtedly there will be those who highlight the difficult cases. Using the small number of difficult cases as examples, they will argue that it is right to have abortion on demand for any woman in Northern Ireland.
Time does not permit me to deal with all the issues at this point, though I hope, by means of intervention and summation, to deal with as many as I can. The point that will always be raised in this type of debate is that abortion may be required to save the life of the mother. As I pointed out earlier, the law in Northern Ireland currently allows abortion in those situations. I must emphasise that this is an extremely rare occurrence. There have been 5·3 million abortions in Great Britain since 1967. In just over 200 of those cases — 0·004% — the abortion was carried out to save the life of the mother. That is a tiny fraction.
In the Irish Republic a study was carried out on 21 deaths which occurred among 74,000 pregnant women in the National Maternity Hospital in Dublin. It was found that not one of those 21 mothers’ lives would have been saved by abortion.
There are those who will argue that the introduction of the 1967 Act will prevent what are known as backstreet abortions. The evidence indicates that that is not correct. From 1968 until 1988 the police in Great Britain recorded 968 offences of the procurement of an illegal abortion. The corresponding figure for Northern Ireland, where the 1967 Act did not apply, was five. In the Irish Republic, where there is no abortion on demand, the equivalent figure was two.
Claims with regard to the number of people dying from illegal abortions have been widely exaggerated by the pro-choice campaign. In 1982, for instance, in Portugal, it was claimed that 2,000 people had died as a result of illegal abortions. Yet when the statistics were examined more closely they revealed that the number of women aged between 15 and 45 who died from any cause in Portugal that year was 1,887. Clearly those statistics were absolute nonsense.
There are those who will argue that it is important to have abortion in order to allow for the termination of a pregnancy should there be a likelihood of a handicapped child being born. In those situations, I believe, abortion is an attack on the most vulnerable. I do not believe that those children are inferior, or of any less value, than the able-bodied.
Yesterday I had the privilege of attending a reception that Assembly Member Roy Beggs organised for Mencap. Anyone who attended will, I am sure, agree that the highlight of the event was a speech made by Hilary Gammon, a young lady with learning difficulties. Anyone who listened to her contribution could not fail to be impressed by what she said. Hilary works for North Down Borough Council and lives a very full and fulfilled life. Many people who have disabled children or children with learning difficulties will testify to the fact that, as a result of having those children, their lives have been enriched. I have very little time for those who say that, because a child is likely to be born handicapped, he or she should automatically be aborted.
The pro-choice lobby would say that every child should be a wanted child, and there are many who would agree with that, but the evidence indicates that abortion on demand does not achieve that. A study carried out in southern California discovered that 91% of battered children referred to clinics were the result of planned or wanted pregnancies. A study of the child protection register carried out by the NSPCC from 1973 until 1990 showed a three fold increase in child abuse during that period. If abortion on demand meant that every child was a wanted child, why has there been a trebling in the number of abused children in the United Kingdom? Why is that happening? Abortion does not seem to be working in that case.
Many will raise the very difficult issue — and I accept that it is a difficult moral issue — of pregnancies caused by rape or incest. The 1938 Bourne judgement permits abortions to be carried out in Northern Ireland in those very difficult circumstances. No one can possibly underestimate the trauma of a pregnancy brought about by rape. However, such a tragedy cannot be undone by the killing of one of the innocent victims of the violent act. When put together, all the difficult cases in Northern Ireland still add up to very few individual children.
The sad reality is that there are far more parents on the register of those seeking adoption than there are those difficult cases. There are homes for these children who would otherwise be aborted. We can all testify to having friends and relatives who have adopted children and have provided excellent homes and very fulfilled upbringings for them, so this idea that you go for abortion in these difficult cases frankly holds no water.
There are other victims associated with abortion beyond the 5·3 million children who have been denied the right to life. There is a psychological impact on the mothers. Ten per cent of those who have had abortions have subsequently had long-term psychological problems. In addition, there are moral problems for many people involved in the Health Service in Northern Ireland who would find it difficult to carry out, or assist in the carrying out of, abortions. Their views also have to be taken into consideration.
Time is rapidly running out. I hope to deal with the Women’s Coalition’s amendment by means of an intervention at some stage, but I ask the House to give this motion its full support.
I beg to move the following amendment: Delete all after "Assembly" and add
"refers the question of the extension of the Abortion Act 1967 and related issues to the Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee and requests that the Committee make a report to the Assembly on the matter within six months."
We tabled this amendment today because we do not want a heated, emotional, disturbing debate for the next four hours. We want this discussion to take place with as much access to information and advice as possible.
The situation in Northern Ireland is a mess and desperately needs to be reviewed. Are Members going to address this issue as they would deal with any other issue that comes before the House? Can they in all honesty say that four hours is enough time to come to a considered opinion on what should be happening in Northern Ireland?
I want to deal with the complexities that exist in the area of reproductive health. It clearly needs a comprehensive inquiry. We need a range of advice from gynaecologists and from those working in obstetrics, in public health, in primary and secondary schools, in education and in sex education. We also need the people from both the Alliance for Choice and Pro-Life to come before the Committee. All deserve to have their opinions heard. Many of you will never have heard from that range of professionals, non-governmental organisations and groups. Here is an opportunity to hear from them, to invite them to come, as you do in all other Committees, to answer your questions, ask for clarification and seek information in any hearing. The Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee would be the best one to do that.
It sometimes takes a great deal of courage in Northern Ireland, as it does anywhere, to say that we do not know it all. We do not have all the answers. We did not have them when we were dealing with the constitutional issues. We only got to the agreement after agonising hours and hours and hours of talking and listening to those who even today are against the agreement and for the agreement, as is their democratic right. We should take time to do that with this issue also.
I am asking Members to have the courage to vote for our amendment. Let them say that they do not know it all, that they are prepared to get that information and advice, contrary, challenging and confrontational as it may be to their beliefs. It is important that they take the opportunity to listen.
When the Assembly was set up I believed that we would craft anything we did well and that we would take time to reflect on the realities of life for all the people in Northern Ireland before we formed our policies. We have said many times that we want a responsive democracy, that we want legislation on policies that do not create, in David Trimble’s words, "a cold house" in Northern Ireland. We would prefer it to be a welcoming house, which acknowledges our diversity. How many times on this Floor have I heard people talk about the pluralism of Northern Ireland, the diversity of Northern Ireland, the different backgrounds that we come from, our different religious perspectives —
All I would say to Mr Roche is that we dealt with a very cold house here on many issues, and it is neither fair nor right to try to exclude people who have different views from him or me on this issue. I was using that as a very pertinent example.
Ethics will come into this debate today. Currently abortion is dealt with as a criminal justice matter, and it is a justice issue — there is no doubt about it. However, it is also a care issue, and the ethic of care is something that we should deal very carefully with.
Let me say something very briefly about the legislation here. Members may think that we are dealing with the Abortion Act 1967, but under the Northern Ireland Act 1998 the 1967 Act is not listed as a reserved matter. There is a reference to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, which amended the previous legislation, so we are really having a debate on outdated legislation. The Northern Ireland Act is very specific as to the legislation to which it refers.
If Members support our amendment asking that the matter be referred to the Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee, they will not be promoting abortion. They will be asking for a considered opinion on the situation in Northern Ireland, and most Members probably do not know what that situation is. We are not asking that this matter be referred simply to let the Health Committee end up with all the problems. No one in this Chamber should ever ask for that to happen. We are not relinquishing our responsibility; we are not transferring our responsibility; we are taking our responsibility very seriously.
We will have a debate about the illegality, or the legality, of what we currently have, but that will not lead us to a discussion on the causes. I am delighted that schools have recently taken on board a very, very tough issue for teachers, the issue of sex education. There was a debate in both the Catholic and state schools on how they were going to introduce this to their pupils at the appropriate age. I know that in Catholic schools it is dealt with under the heading ‘Education for Love’. Much of this information are facts which those children never had before. It also leads young boys and girls to understand the meaning of a responsible, mature adolescent relationship. As we know, it is the lack of that information in the past which led to the tragedies many of us are discussing.
I will speak briefly about the current legal situation and here I would like to take issue with Mr Wells. Under our law for non-consensual sex, in terms of both rape and incest, termination should be permitted, but that is not the case. Indeed, it may be something that both the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Northern Ireland Bill of Rights have to look at.
Termination is an impossible situation for all mothers. All of us who work with disability groups, Mencap and many others, will always support those groups. In Northern Ireland, doctors making difficult decisions every day about foetal abnormalities are performing illegally. We must consider this fact in our investigations.
We also need to address the question of technology and how it is overtaking us. How will a system based on judicial interpretations of a Victorian statute of 1861 stand in the face of changes in medical technology? Undoubtedly, it is the more recent piece of legislation of 1990 that the Northern Ireland Act refers to. Currently, judicial rulings are based on very hard and tough cases. If we want to leave it with the judges, so be it. The judicial rulings state that where there is a probable risk of an adverse effect to the physical and mental health of pregnant women, terminations are permitted, and so it goes. We are united in confusion. The whole area is shrouded in confusion. To get out of that confusion, it is very clear to me that we need to refer this to the appropriate Committee.
I would like to congratulate Mr Wells on bringing this motion before the Assembly. I have studied the amendment put forward by Prof Monica McWilliams. My Committee will discuss this issue or any other issue that we feel is important. Of that, there is no doubt. This issue will not be resolved today, irrespective of what happens, and I am sure our Committee will have plenty of opportunities to discuss it. I support the motion.
Not long ago an all-party delegation went to see John Major when he was Prime Minister. The DUP was represented by the Rev William McCrea. Seamus Mallon and myself and also the Conservative and Labour parties were represented. We made it clear to the then Prime Minister that the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland were implacably opposed to the extension of that Act. Jim Wells made reference to Mo Mowlan, and I agree with what he said. There are of course very deep rooted, social economic and personal reasons why people seek abortion. From my position as a doctor over many years, I am indeed familiar with the massive psychological trauma to a young girl from an unplanned pregnancy. I do understand the many hundreds who go to England from all parts of this island. As has been said, the beginning of life for each human being is fertilisation, when the father’s sperm fertilises the mother’s egg. It is a momentous event in the beginning of a completely new human being, unique in its own right from fertilisation; 23 chromosomes in the sperm, 23 in the egg, that is 46 chromosomes.
It is important to remember that the baby is genetically complete at that point. Nothing is added after that, other than nutrition and oxygen. It is genetically complete. Of course, there are major environmental influences, both intrauterine and after birth. Many of the characteristics of the individual are determined at conception, such as colour of hair, eyes and skin, et cetera. Growth is controlled by the child’s own genetic code: DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, as you would know, Mr Speaker. A single thread of human DNA contains information equivalent to half-a-million pages of five hundred words each. Between 21 and 25 days, the heart starts to beat. Fingers and toes are formed shortly afterwards.
Consider the methods of abortion that are used. I could go on about vacuum aspiration at 12-14 weeks, where parts of the human body are actually sucked out, but time is running out.
As regards a woman’s right to choose, I have nothing but the highest respect and understanding for women and young girls who have unplanned pregnancies. It is not for us, or anyone else, to condemn them. We should try to help them, but abortion violates a human being’s right to life. Human rights are universal. Unborn children are the most vulnerable human beings in our society.
As Jim Wells said, all the evidence suggests that providing abortions for people with psychiatric problems does more harm than good. Only five per cent of legal abortions are done on psychiatric grounds. That is a fact of life. Intellectual honesty is important, for the medical profession and beyond.
I will come to my final point. I appreciate that you have given me seven minutes, and my watch tells me I have a little while yet. I refer the Assembly to the Home Secretary’s consultation document ‘Supporting Families’. A copy of this was given to each member of the Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee on Wednesday. This is the first report of its kind issued by any British Government Minister. The Assembly and the Executive would do well to copy it. In my last minute, I will quote from it —
There were a lot of people speaking around me, you understand.
I commend this report to the House. It is fascinating reading and contains many suggestions. The problem lies with teenage parenthood. There is a group in Lurgan and Craigavon that has taken these matters on board:
"Unwanted and under-age pregnancies, whether planned or unplanned, have a high personal, social and economic cost and can blight the life chances of younger teenagers … Many young teenagers show a worrying level of ignorance about the ‘facts of life’."
It goes on to talk about contraception — extremely important:
"Under 16 year olds are often very ignorant about sexual matters and this is a crucial risk factor for early teenage pregnancy … Research suggests that boys who become fathers in their early teenage years are likely to have lived with neither or only one of their natural parents."
The most important point of all is that
"because of the links between teenage pregnancy and social exclusion, the Prime Minister has asked the Social Exclusion Unit to work on this as its next priority. Its remit is to devise an integrated strategy to cut rates of teenage parenthood, particularly under-age parenthood, towards the European Union average."
In the Family Planning Association document, Mrs Whitaker attacks the DUP for not developing a strategy for reducing unplanned pregnancy. I say to her that it is the Assembly and the Executive that must take action in that regard.
For the record, I must state that abortion is not a satisfactory way to avoid unwanted pregnancies. It should never be seen as the way out.
The debate on the controversial issue of abortion and its effects on women in Northern Ireland is of importance to the whole community — women in particular. It is ironic that a man, who will never have to go through childbirth or face the personal consequences of unwanted pregnancy, is proposing the motion.
The 1967 legislation was made by men for women and any future changes need to be made in consultation with the women of Northern Ireland.
The Assembly may pass the motion, but how is this motion going to persuade women that abortion is not an option? Abortion is here whether we agree with it or not. Abortions are already being carried out in Northern Ireland. In 1997-98, 77 medical abortions were carried out and in a survey 11% of GPs stated that they had experience of seeing women who had been involved in an amateur abortion. The morning-after pill is also an issue. How would the proposer of the motion suggest controlling that form of abortion?
The 1967 Act does not give women carte blanche to obtain abortion on demand. The Act clearly states that a lawful abortion can only be obtained when two registered medical practitioners agree that the continuance of a pregnancy would have a detrimental, physical or mental impact on the woman, or that the child, if it were born, would be seriously handicapped.
It is simplistic to say that if the 1967 Abortion Act were introduced all pregnant women would wish to have an abortion. In Holland, where abortion is freely available, only six out of every 1,000 women procure one. That is the lowest abortion rate in the world. Why are such low numbers seeking abortions in Holland when it is freely available? In Holland they promote an ethic of personal responsibility with regard to sexual activity. Dutch teenagers, because of this culture of responsibility, tend to avoid sexual activity until they are older. This makes Dutch teenage pregnancy rates the lowest in Europe with only four pregnancies per 1,000 for women aged 15 to 19.
Compare this to Northern Ireland, which has about 29 pregnancies per 1000 women aged 15 to 19. If a woman from Northern Ireland wishes to have an abortion and she has enough money, all she has to do is look in ‘Yellow Pages’ where a number of English clinics providing that service are listed.
Almost 2,000 women from Northern Ireland travel to Great Britain every year to use abortion services. One fifth are under 20 years of age. The fact that around 400 girls under the age of 20 are obtaining abortions every year highlights the wider social problems. A large proportion of children under the age of 15 are engaging in sexual activity resulting in unwanted pregnancies. In our schools sexual health must be promoted in a way that encompasses spiritual and emotional health as well as physical health and well-being. There is an obvious need for a sensitive and compassionate programme for sex education that must include parents, teachers and children.
The responsibility for an abortion, or a termination, lies primarily with the woman and not with the state. If the Assembly takes the simple, moral high ground and agrees this motion, it will do nothing to help those 2,000 women who travel to Great Britain every year for an abortion. This attitude will do nothing to tackle the problem of teenage pregnancy. Once again, the real issue, preventing unwanted pregnancies, will be swept under the carpet.
The amendment, if passed, will put pressure on the Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee, and a six-month debate in the Committee is not the way to address the abortion problem. In the Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee there are problems by the score to be addressed — acute services, children’s issues, and mental health to name but a few. I ask all in the Assembly today to consider the wider implications of the necessity for having some form of legalized abortion. Simply passing this motion is to be blind to the wider problems. We must have comprehensive sex education in our schools placing value on loving human relationships. We must make an effort to reduce the number of teenage pregnancies, and we must have a co-ordinated approach by all interested groups, agencies and parties to tackle the problem in a realistic way. I appeal above all for our politicians to have an understanding of those women who have to make a difficult decision. Those women should not have to leave home or have to leave Northern Ireland, and they should not be made to feel like criminals having to hide their identities. Nor should they be ostracised by society.
I cannot support the motion.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Every party approaching this debate will be able to testify to the intensity of emotion and conviction that arises when the issue of abortion is addressed. Elected representatives strive to the limits of their ability and experience to interpret constituency opinion and public will. We all come to it, as the previous Member indicated, with our own attitudes, perceptions and indeed prejudices. For that reason, the amendment is worthy of support. We need a very calm and reflective discussion — we have a collective responsibility. We must attempt to achieve a very difficult balance between the right of any person, man or woman, to have control over what happens to their bodies and those who profess sincerely held convictions on the questions of pro-life or pro-choice.
There can hardly be any dispute that an overwhelming majority of our community are opposed to the concept of abortion on demand and to the current practice in Britain of the creative interpretation of sections of the existing legislation, which achieves the same outcome.
That is one reason for Sinn Féin’s being opposed to the extension of this legislation to the North. Sinn Féin is supporting the amendment put forward by the Women’s Coalition because it believes that this issue should be addressed in a much more considered and reflective fashion. This is an issue that invites harangues, emotional rants and playing to the gallery. However, we need a much more considered and honest debate that considers all of the issues that arise from this very difficult and complex issue.
We must address the reality that up to 7, 000 women from this island travel to access abortion services elsewhere. Most of us know someone who has had such an abortion. In some cases the person will thank that she made an informed decision. As elected representatives with constituency clinics, we will also have met women who have had an abortion, but who were responding to intolerable personal, social and emotional pressures. For those women, abortion was not a free or informed option — it was not even a preferred option. We will also have become aware of the trauma that is so often a consequence of such situations. Sinn Féin believes that this issue should be addressed in a comprehensive manner, involving a multi-agency response that develops effective services for sexual health and sex education, fuller access to child support provision and specific support for single parents.
It is my party’s view that provision in the North is very inconsistent. Emergency contraception, the morning- after pill, for instance, may or may not be prescribed by doctors’ surgeries.
Some doctors prescribe emergency contraception for patients who do not normally use their practice, while others will not prescribe it at all. Accident and emergency departments are not required to provide emergency contraception, and many do not. Inconsistency in the application of resources is an issue that should be addressed. Those of us who are committed to dealing with the matter humanely actively support calls for sex education and resources for childcare and counselling.
It is Sinn Féin’s policy to accept the need for abortion if a woman’s life or mental health is at risk or in grave danger, and also in cases of rape or sexual abuse. We strongly support the demand for full information and non-directive counselling. Opinion polls in the North have consistently demonstrated support for that position.
The current legal and health provisions enforced in the North should be radically re-examined and structured to deliver a service that will meet those criteria. The Committee on Health, Social Services and Public Safety should be asking whether it has developed policies, within legislative parameters, that adequately respond to the community’s needs. Clearly, it has not done so. Abortions are carried out in the North in very limited circumstances. Reference has been made to cases of severe foetal abnormality. The invisible multitudes of women who travel to other countries for abortions are prevented by our culture from discussing their experience. Abortion is very much a part of Irish life, and it is an indictment of our society that so many women from our community choose abortion. However, the issue remains unresolved.
The miserable history of backstreet abortions, and the statistics for those who travel to other countries seeking abortions, tell us plainly that we have not yet responded to the issue in a satisfactory way. I urge the House to support the amendment to the motion.
There are few issues that will be debated in the House about which I will feel more strongly or passionately than the issue that we are discussing this afternoon. Abortion strikes at the heart of society. It deals with the beginning of human life, but tragically it is also about the snuffing out of human life, even before birth. Abortion kills human beings. Abortion kills the unborn child. It does not matter whether it is six days, six hours, six minutes, or six seconds after conception. In my book, human life begins at conception. That human life which began then — not one hour, two hours, or a week later, but at the moment of conception — is killed by abortion. There is nothing arbitrary about that; it is a fact. It is a fact of life but, tragically, it is also a fact of death.
The tragedy in society today is that abortion has become almost respectable in some people’s eyes. It is accepted in many circles and demanded by those who ought to know better. In Northern Ireland we have the crazy situation of people fighting for limited hours of work, shorter working weeks, the right to work, the equality agenda, and so on, but also fighting for the right to abortion. They would deny the greatest right of all — the right of life to the unborn child. They are either misguided or hypocrites. They would not give the unborn child the opportunity of life. They spew forth their murderous arguments without a care in the world for the lives that they would destroy. Worst of all, there are members of the medical profession who advocate and pontificate about this form of killing. They are a disgrace to their profession, a profession that is supposed to cherish life and heal it, not kill it.
Strong and emotional arguments are advanced to justify abortion. There often seem to be strong reasons for such justification, for example, in cases of rape, or when the father is not the husband, when the girl is unmarried or when the parents do not have the emotional, physical or material resources to cope with another child.
I am the first to concede that anyone who has not faced these problems personally cannot begin to appreciate the intensity of the human dilemma that an unwanted pregnancy can generate. However, strong reasons are not necessarily good reasons. Strong reasons could be given to mitigate virtually every crime that is committed, but that does not make the crime right or justify it. In Northern Ireland, terrorists are threatening to go back to their murderous ways, and they advance arguments to justify that, but murder and butchery are always wrong.
No human problem in society, whether in Northern Ireland or anywhere else, can be solved by killing another human being. Abortion is violent. Abortion is negative. It rests on the dangerous principle that the small and the weak are inferior and that some human beings are disposable. In a society that has made great steps in coping with both physically and mentally handicapped people, the demand for abortion runs in parallel.
There is blatant abuse of ultrasonic scanning by the medical profession to pinpoint babies suffering from spina bifida, mongolism and other disorders. Aborted babies are killed before advantage can be taken of the advances made by medical science. Many people in our so-called compassionate society now regard these handicaps as unacceptable. What is the cure? The cure is disposal. The cure is murder. In what other circumstances do doctors prescribe death as the treatment and murder as the cure? It is another tragic example of man’s inhumanity to man.
What about the pro-abortion lobby? What are the arguments? How does it justify these demands? The most common argument is that it is the mother’s right to choose. The unborn child is, after all, part of her body. However, as Dr Hendron said, that argument fails to recognise that the unborn child is genetically distinct from its mother. It has its own sets of limbs and organs. Its mother’s blood does not circulate through the child as it does through her hand, foot, liver or any other part of her body. The mother and the child can die independently of the other. Therefore, the child is not part of her in the strict sense of the word. If the unborn child were part of the mother, the mother would be incomplete before conception and she would be incomplete after the child’s birth, which is clearly nonsense.
Simply because the child is defenceless and depends on the mother’s womb for security and protection does not make the unborn child any less human. It does not make it any less wrong to kill that unborn child. A woman has as little right to kill an unborn child as she has to kill a one or two-year-old child. No such right exists. She has rights over her own body, but the unborn child is another body.
The pro-abortion lobby argues that an unborn child is not a child but a foetus. That lobby obscures truth and reality with medical terms and fancy language. It avoids calling a spade a spade. A foetus is seen as less human and less real than an "unborn child".
I support the motion introduced by the hon Member for South Down, Jim Wells, opposing the extension of the Abortion Act 1967 to Northern Ireland. I oppose the Women’s Coalition amendment because I believe that the majority of Members have considered the issue very carefully.
The Northern Ireland Unionist Party is committed to the biblical principle of the sanctity of human life. The basis of Christian morality is that human life is sacred. We have pledged to protect the life of the unborn child. Following the Abortion Act 1967, five million abortions have taken place in Great Britain, where one baby is killed by abortion every three minutes. That is 500 every day, seven days a week. To put it bluntly, it is a massacre of the innocents that all too often leaves mothers mentally or physically scarred for life.
Birth does not mark the beginning of a new life. A new life begins in the womb. At conception all the hereditary characteristics of the new human being are established, eye colour and sex, for example. Birth brings about a change in the baby’s environment, not a change in the nature of the baby. The right to life is an inalienable right of which an innocent human being may not be deprived. All human life is of equal value. The life of the child in the womb is neither more nor less important than the life of the mother but equally so. There is, therefore, no moral objection to measures aimed solely at curing a life-threatening condition in an expectant mother, even if this may indirectly lead to the child’s death.
The ethical treatments available in such circumstances do not involve deliberately killing the baby. Serious medical problems which may arise later in pregnancy, when the child is capable of surviving outside the womb, may justify early delivery so long as appropriate steps are taken to save the life of the baby.
Abortion is typically carried out by the dismemberment, poisoning or the premature expulsion of the unborn child. It is usually an invasive procedure for the mother which, even in the best hospital conditions, carries risks to her physical health and often causes her psychological harm. Fathers and other family members may also suffer after an abortion. The ethics of health-care professionals who take part in abortions are compromised and society as a whole is harmed by the tolerance of violence against the unborn child.
In 1996 there were nearly 190,000 abortions in England, Scotland and Wales. A further 1,600 women from Northern Ireland had abortions in England in the same year. In 1996 only 1% of abortions were carried out because there was a substantial risk of the child being seriously handicapped. Only 0.002% were carried out to save the life of the woman. When the 1967 Abortion Act was passed many felt it was necessary to deal with a small number of women in particular situations. The Act has, however, led virtually to abortion on demand.
Amendments under the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 brought in a new upper time limit for most abortions of 24 weeks, and up to birth if mental or physical handicap is suspected. Yet at 18 days a baby’s heart is beating, by eight weeks all her body systems are established, at 11 weeks she is breathing. She can also swallow, and her fingernails are present. By 13 weeks her taste buds are developed, and at 16 weeks she has eyelashes.
Abortion of the disabled is doubly discriminatory: it is a reminder of the inhumanity of abortion — the attacking the most vulnerable, those most in need of protection — and an affront to all members of the community here who are disabled. It sends a message that they are inferior to and of less value than the able-bodied. There can be many physical complications with abortion including perforation, rupture of the uterus, pelvic infection, miscarriage in later pregnancies, infertility and death of the mother.
At a major conference in New Delhi in 1992 it was stated that legal abortion has killed 200,000 women worldwide. The Royal College of General Practitioners carried out a study over a 14-year period on attitudes to abortion which found that women obtaining abortions were twice as likely to develop self-destructive behaviour, such as taking drug overdoses, as those who decided not to abort. They also had a 10 % increased chance of problems such as anxiety and neurosis.
Medical research also shows a link between abortion and breast cancer. Twenty-six studies out of 32 worldwide show an increased risk of breast cancer after an induced abortion. In the United States 12 out of 13 studies show the link.
I must refer now to the press release yesterday from the Family Planning Association for Northern Ireland. I take exception to its rather condescending tone when it says
"Women are being failed by their political representatives. Like it or not MLAs have a duty to work on behalf of all their constituents."
Such attacks on elected representatives do nothing to resolve the issue. I am confident that my view on abortion is one that is held by the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland. The case against an extension of the 1967 Abortion Act is overwhelming and the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland would oppose it. Once the sanctity of life is denied the value of every human life is in question. The growing pressure for euthanasia is witness to this. It is essential, therefore, to maintain the sanctity of life as a first priority.
The people of Northern Ireland are hoping and praying for a new era of peace, but we must not let our desire for peace blind us to the death threat to our unborn babies. After over 30 years of terror and violence, the last thing Northern Ireland needs is legislation that will shed infinitely more lives than even the worst terrorist atrocities. I support the motion.
The Member who introduced the motion set the scene clearly for me when he described the foetus as "he", "he", "he". Of course, we have just had the balance restored when the foetus was described as "she", "she", "she".
Abortion is an extreme symptom of the failures in society. Convince me that we offer adequate sex education? Convince me that we help people to not only the reproductive system but the relationships they will have throughout their lives with members of the opposite sex.
Mrs Carson eloquently stated that the Dutch seem to be somewhat ahead of us on this matter. They made abortion freely available, and when they did so, what happened? Did lots of women dive at the opportunity of having the most brutal form of contraception — abortion? Indeed they did not. Actually, the figures dropped. As has been said, they have the lowest figures in Europe and possibly even in the world.
The Dutch matched their action with bombarding children with information about how the rest of their lives would have to be lived. They took control of their destiny and understood the importance of decisions they might make as children and how those decisions might affect them in the future. We have not done that. We have not remotely thought of doing it.
Those who are pro-life have a point — and I am not pro-abortion; I am pro-choice. They have, lying more deeply at their core, a desire for chastity and decency. I suppose these are reasonable aspirations, but just simply trying to get someone to cross her legs or keep his zip up does not seem to work.
There is an awful stinking, painful route that is travelled by people in our society — not just by women but by people. They are not women; they are people; they are equals; and, indeed, they are the majority. We sit here making decisions about their lives without one iota of the pain, sorrow or suffering that whatever decision they make about abortion will blight the rest of their lives as they see it then. When they put their hands out like scales and try to make their decision, the moral arguments we create do not help because there is right and wrong in each hand, or on each side. In many ways, they do not view it in terms of right or wrong or of society’s moral values.
Essentially, it becomes imperative for them. It is something they must do. The human being is faced with trauma and difficulty, and then we heap upon her a degree of admonishment, bitterness and hatred. What I am hearing is that they are murderers. When we talk about murderers, what about Belgrade, which was recently pattern-bombed. What about Baghdad, which was pattern-bombed, or Dresden, which was patternbombed in order to send a message loud and clear to Germany? Or what about when we devastated it?
We, the politicians, are the moral people who talk seriously about the ethics of the medical profession. Is this a joke, or what? Politicians who have consistently failed to bring peace to this society are admonishing those people who are trying to bring a better quality of life to our community. It seems alien and incredible to me.
The arguments can all be emotional and I suppose I am getting emotional too, but the reality is that we all have choices to make as human beings. We would be better to make those choices with proper information. Perhaps then, people would not end up taking an awful route because they were not properly equipped.
I hear much said about the foetus, and I understand the arguments. Our party had to have two party conferences to enable me to make a speech like this. In the last two years, 21 women have died as a result of domestic violence. The safe houses that society has provided are packed to overcapacity as we speak, and not one word is said about that. This male-dominated society is treating the majority like something it walked in on its heel, and that is not acceptable.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClelland] in the Chair)
In 1982, when this issue was raised previously, it is my understanding — I dare say I will be corrected if I am wrong — that one Member opposed the motion. More than one Member will oppose the motion today, and when it comes up again, as it surely will, more Members will oppose it. People are discriminated against by that evil, awful Britain who killed 5 million, the Britain with whom you want to be associated both politically and socially, that murderous, evil Britain that will extend the Act. The Act will be extended eventually and our people will be treated as equals. They will be given the same opportunity to have an abortion if they need one, and, consequently, one hopes that the number of abortions will decrease rather than increase. What we are constantly doing is heaping pain and more pain on people who are incapable of taking that pain. There are many thousands of nameless people who have gone along that painful route. They will be listening today and, unfortunately, unless we get our act together, there will be many thousands who will follow them. And what will we do? Will our moral arguments make popes and moderators end up in the same camp?
This debate is about the preciousness and sanctity of life. By that I mean the life of the mother as well as the life of the child. I know that many hon Members may not agree with what I will say today, for I take the traditional Protestant line on this issue. I disagree with many Roman Catholics in this House. I believe that the priority must always be given to the mother whose life must come first in all circumstances — that is the traditional Protestant view and always has been.
We need to dwell on one question today. Should the life of the babe in the womb, at whatever stage, be protected, safeguarded and preserved? It is interesting to note that all those who have spoken in favour of the amendment and in favour of abortion never mentioned the child — they never mentioned the child. They had much to say about the mother, but they made no mention of the child. Should the child in the womb be protected, safeguarded and preserved, or should it be destroyed — at times wantonly and ruthlessly? It is not enough for people to say that they do not like hearing a description of what happens during an abortion. Such descriptions are based on well-established facts. If the baby were outside the mother’s womb, say in an incubator, and a member of the general public or of the medical profession came along and deliberately slaughtered it, such a person would be in breach of the law and would be tried for murder. Do those who are arguing for abortion say "No. Those who kill a child when it is outside the womb should be subject to the same laws as those who kill a child inside the womb"? They cannot have it both ways. Yet, because the child is inside its mother’s womb, we are told it can be slaughtered.
A mother has a voice and can use that voice to defend her case. The women in this House have spoken today and have made their points loudly and clearly. Other women would take a different view and make their points equally loudly and clearly. But who will speak for the child, who cannot lobby or be represented, whose voice cannot be heard? Yet that child will be the victim of a barbarous deed.
As a public representative, I shall speak for the child today, the child who feels, who can recognise its mother’s voice and know pain, who is a member of the human family and who has been given the unique gift of human life. We cannot get away from that. There may be some in this House who would like to do so, but who should consider it very seriously indeed. Some people misjudge the passion in our hearts today when we discuss this. There is no apology needed when people have deeply held views and express them sincerely and with passion.
Today we should listen to the silent cries of those who cannot speak for themselves. No matter how we vote at the end of this debate, we should all realise that we are on most serious and solemn ground. The Bible is the most ancient of all books, and I am old-fashioned enough to believe that it is what it claims to be — the Word of God. That will come as no surprise to any Member. In the Book of Psalms, which is part of the Hebrew scriptures, covering both Judaism and Christianity, it says
"I will praise thee; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made: marvellous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well. My substance was not hid from thee, that I was made in secret, and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth. Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect; and in thy book all my members were written, which in continuance were fashioned, when as yet there was none of them."
That is the most beautiful description of life and its secrets. That is why I plead with hon Members today not to take upon themselves the destruction of God’s own handiwork. We should not take it upon ourselves to terminate that God-breathed vitality, nor should we lift our hand against the circumstances of special sanctimony.
Clearly there are circumstances where physical or health problems must be considered. That is the traditional view of the Protestant Church. As I have already emphasised, the priority is the mother, whose life must come first in such physical circumstances. It has been argued that we should do this and that. In closing, I say that many will speak and say "Let the children die", but I wish to raise my voice with others in the House and say: "Let the children live".
Mr Ervine referred to the last debate that took place here on this subject. For the record, it was on 29 February 1984. When the Division was called, there were 20 votes for and 1 against. I quote the late George Seawright, who spoke in that debate. At the time, there was great trouble throughout the Province with murders being committed daily. He said
"In Northern Ireland political circles we have heard much of discrimination, we have heard much about biased legislation, and we have heard much about political philosophies that do not accept the rights of minorities, but I can think of no minority group more tragic than those innocent infants within the womb who this year, like every other year, and perhaps in future years, will be put to death simply because someone, with very twisted logic, believes that a parent has the right to put her own child to death".
Many other Members said similar things on that day.
I am glad that the Assembly is tackling the abortion issue. It reflects well on Members to address difficult issues as well as those with which we can agree relatively easily. The abortion issue is probably the most difficult one of all. I am glad that my party, along with others, has extended a free vote. It would be wrong for abortion to become a party political issue in Northern Ireland.
Debates on the abortion issue usually revolve round the so-called hard cases — rape, in particular. However, since the introduction of the Abortion Act 1967, only 2% of abortions have been performed as a result of rape, severe handicap or a real threat to the life of the mother. Abortion is available to women in Northern Ireland in those circumstances. Today, we are discussing unlimited abortion on demand. The Lane Committee of 1974 concluded that that was the effect of the Abortion Act 1967, which is limited only by the 24-week rule.
Unfortunately, the abortion debate is often reduced to questions on when life begins. I have not read the stories of the German Lutheran theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but I agree with what he said:
"To raise the question whether we are here concerned already with a human being or not is merely to confuse the issue. The simple fact is that God certainly intended to create a human being."
To allow that intention to be taken away on an à la carte basis would be wrong. For all their differences, people of all religions agree with that view, whether they are Roman Catholic, Protestant, Jewish or Muslim.
There are far too many unwanted pregnancies in Northern Ireland. We have the highest birth rate of any region in the European Union, but abortion is not the answer. Fewer than 3% of abortions in England and Wales are performed on women who have five children or more. We must encourage the proper use of family planning, and we should value our children more.
I am not a medical expert, but I am concerned by what I have read about the effects of abortion on the mental and physical health of women. Women who have had abortions find it much more difficult to have children in later life. Of course, keeping the Abortion Act 1967 off the Northern Ireland statute book will not prevent women from seeking abortions across the water, but it is a major deterrent.
The number of women recorded as having travelled to England for abortions has fallen, even as abortion has become less of a taboo. The number travelling is far fewer proportionally than the number of abortions carried out in England and Wales, which are not such different societies from ours in Northern Ireland. There can be no doubt that we have a problem, but my favoured solution is for more funding for unwanted pregnancy counselling, rather than an extension to Northern Ireland of the Abortion Act 1967. That would create an abortion culture, resulting in more abortions in the long term. For all those reasons I support the motion.
I rise to support the motion standing in the name of Jim Wells. I do so because I believe that abortion is fundamentally wrong and against all the principles in which I believe. I oppose the amendment, Mr Speaker. We talk about pro-life and pro-choice. Why do we not talk about pro-death and pro-murder? That is what abortion is.
There are a few facts I would like to share with the House today. Mr Wells and others gave us facts and figures about the number of people going to England for abortion on demand. I do not want to see that happening in this country. We have heard about the terrible crimes of rape and incest, but an abortion will not undo those crimes. It will not take away the fact that a crime has been committed. To punish an unborn child because of that crime is morally wrong.
In Britain in 1996, out of 190,000 abortions only three were carried out to save the life of the mother. We have to think about the child in question here. Dr Paisley quite rightly referred to it as a child, other people tend to refer to it as a group of cells or a foetus to try to dehumanise it. That child is an individual growing in its mother’s womb — it is not a part of the mother. Many people say "Oh, it is the woman’s body; she should be allowed to choose what happens". Mr Deputy Speaker, if I were to give you a lift home today and decided to run my car into a brick wall, would I have a right to do that because it was my car? Or would I have a moral responsibility to protect you? I feel that it is the latter.
Another issue I want to come back to is rape. In the United States the Supreme Court allowed an abortion in the case of Roe versus Wade. A woman known as Jane Roe, whose real name was Norma McCorvey, admitted that her claim of rape was a total fabrication. She was a woman intent on procuring an abortion. This is another danger of extending this Act to Northern Ireland.
The Member is deliberately misrepresenting what I said. There is the potential for the situation to be abused. We have had calls for clarification of the abortion law from the former Ministers, Mo Mowlam and John McFall. Clarification of the abortion law would mean permissive abortion in Northern Ireland. That is quite clearly what it means. To say that handicapped children should be aborted is totally wrong. Who is to say that a handicapped child is less valuable or less loving than any other child? Certainly not I.
I would like to quote from the feminist author Mary Meekin, who stated in the ‘Human Life Review’ in 1983
"Honesty requires us to say that it is unjust that a woman may carry her child through rape or incest; it is far greater injustice to kill the child".
This is a rare situation in which injustice cannot be avoided, and the best thing that can be done is to reduce it. The first injustice lasts for nine months of a life that can be relieved both psychologically and financially.
The second injustice ends a life. There is no remedy for that. Yesterday and this morning I received what could probably be described as junk mail from Voice for Choice, from the family planning people and from Alliance for Choice — that is not the Alliance Party, I hasten to add — all saying how wrong it was for this motion to be brought forward. I am glad it was brought forward. This matter needs to be aired, and I hope that the motion gets the full support of the House. There will be some dissenters, but I know where I stand on human rights. The human rights of an unborn child are as important as the rights of any one of us. I urge the House to support the motion.
There are people on every side of this issue who hold deep and genuine views. There are also those who dismiss my right to come to the House today and express my views. They do so because I am merely a man and for that reason, they think, I have no right to speak on matters that affect women. I was not commissioned to come to the House by the men of Mid Ulster. I come on behalf of all my constituents, whether male or female. I have been lobbied by many ladies’ organisations on this issue. I make no apology for my views, which I hold passionately. I know that I represent the vast majority of my constituents. I shall vote for my Friend Mr Wells’s motion.
As a public representative it is my duty to give a lead to the people of this Province. The people of Ulster need their leaders to speak clearly on the issues of life and death. Should this legislation be extended to Northern Ireland, it would be a travesty of justice and democracy. The vast majority of people, across the community, do not want it. By having this debate, we are putting down a marker, and I thank my hon Friend for giving us this opportunity.
We have heard many voices raised on behalf of those who desire abortion on demand. My party Leader, Dr Paisley, posed a pertinent question: who will speak for the unborn child who has been silenced by murder? There are charges laid against us. We have heard them today. For example, it was said that this debate should not take place because it would simply be a heated debate. I have been here since the debate started, and I have heard people speak passionately, but I have not heard a heated debate. This place is all about debate. It is a debating Chamber. It should deal with the important issues, and what issue could be more important than the life or death of a child? I speak as the father of five children.
We are told that this debate should go upstairs. Why? Is this not the place for debate? Is this not the place where the decisions are made? We are told that we have no knowledge. Have we no knowledge of this Act that was passed in England in 1967? Are we not able to see what the effects of it have been?
There are those involved in this debate who do not want us to see what abortion actually is. You are walking on very dangerous ground if you happen to talk about the suction of a child from its mother’s womb or about tearing a child apart or about the dismembering of its body, but that is what actually happens, yet they do not want you to know that. They do not want you to know about the pain of the child, or the cry of a child, which is being taken from its mother’s womb where it was put by God. But man has decided that no, the child will not stay there. For some reason, it must be destroyed.
Another aspect of the tragedy is the talk about the child’s being unwanted. Why is it unwanted? Is it because it does not suit its parents’ social life? Is the child unwanted because it will disrupt their plans for the future? So, for them to have their way, this unwanted child has to be removed, so they murder him. Make no mistake about it; call it whatever fancy name you want; the child is murdered! Indeed, that is what has happened to five million children.
I see a Member shaking her head. She is disgusted I suppose. What fancy name would you call it, I wonder? I hear people saying that men have no sensitivity for women’s needs. I have been a pastor of the same congregation for 32 years —
I am happy to do so, Mr Deputy Speaker.
I have been a pastor for 32 years to the same congregation, the majority of whom are women. I have never been charged with being insensitive to the needs of those ladies, and thank God for the many children that are therein. However, I do remember a child being born once. You see, it was a mongol, and the doctor had suggested getting rid of it. I remember when the parents were told that they had a mongol child. I sat in the hospital overnight with that child, who is now 21 years old. Not an "it", "he" is 21 years old. That child has given the sweetest love to his mother and father for 21 years. It is not right that, because he is regarded as disabled, he is less entitled to life than any of us in this Chamber. So I listen to the charge. I cannot stop them from going to England, but I can stop them from receiving my blessing to murder their children.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I am indebted to the many people, female individuals and groups who lobbied our party in respect of this debate. These responses illustrate that we need to open the door to honest and reasoned debate on what is a tragic dilemma for women. This is a dilemma that is not being addressed, nor indeed will it be resolved, by the DUP motion.
Using legislation that was enacted to deal with one set of social circumstances to deal with another set of social circumstances is illogical, especially if one considers that abortion is legally available in the North in certain circumstances. It must be stated though that accessibility to such services is very limited. However, there is no escaping the fact that around 7,000 Irish women, from the North and the South, travel abroad each year to get abortions. Travelling abroad to other jurisdictions has, therefore, become a safety valve for Irish women. The alternative for women who have chosen this course is a return to back-street abortions and all that that entails. It is unfortunate, but understandable, that there is such polarisation on the issue of abortion, with what have become the pro-life and pro-choice camps. People, particularly women, who have taken sides are motivated by a deep concern for the value of human life, even if they have different political perspectives.
Many people who are anti-abortion would consider abortion as an option in the case of rape or where the life of the mother is threatened. By the same token, many of those who are pro-choice, favouring the legislation, do not believe that abortion is the answer to the complex problems facing women in today’s society. There is also the view that abortion is, primarily, violence against women and a capitulation to the norms of patriarchy. However, those who subscribe to that view would oppose any form of legal sanction against it, because they recognise the need, so far unmet, for more adequate and widespread change in society at large, which would make abortion unnecessary.
As politicians, our response to the tragic situations where women are put into absolutist positions might be to work towards removing the conditions of shame, economic circumstances and lack of education which place women in situations where they have no choice except abortion. Many women are forced to make such stark choices because motherhood, unlike fatherhood, is not easily combined with other aspects of daily living. If we are obligated to upholding the rights of women and children, we must work towards creating a society where those women who choose to have children can do so without economic penalties and with support through nursery and childcare facilities and the recognition of the fundamental role of parenting. This may not end abortions, but it would do more to decrease their incidence than criminal sanctions.
Sinn Féin has debated this issue for many years, and it will continue to debate it because the issue of abortion presents us all with emotional, social and political questions. Our party position is that we oppose abortion on demand or abortion as a form of birth control. We accept the need for abortion where a woman’s life or mental health is at risk or in grave danger and in cases of rape and sexual abuse. We believe that full information and non-directive pregnancy counselling, embodying all choices, should be freely available. We totally oppose those attitudes and forces in society that compel women to have abortions or criminalise them for making such decisions.
As a party, we acknowledge the complex nature of the abortion issue. We have attempted to deal with the matter in open and honest debate. Modern technology has created genetically cloned sheep; life is no longer arbitrary but planned; medical science has advanced dramatically; and people go to outer space. Women, however, are expected to bring children into the world irrespective of whether they have the means to clothe or feed them, whether their physical or mental health is broken, whether they have been victims of a violent sexual attack, whether they are suffering from AIDS or their children are suffering from, or will be born with, HIV, and irrespective of whether the children will die, before they are one year old, from starvation, disease or a neutron bomb that preserves buildings but wipes out human beings.
Life, and the right to life, is not only about biological reproduction; it is about the future child. This happens in an emotional and a social context. Life is a gift entrusted to women and men. It must never be reduced to a knee-jerk reaction. The tragic dilemma of abortion, which sees women boarding boats and planes, often in isolation and fear, is an indictment on us all.
This afternoon we have heard a number of speeches, and their substance was based primarily on personal conscience rather than party attitudes. I would like to put forward my personal perspective.
I speak as a woman who has lost children and who was told that she could not bear any more. I was then told that I could not adopt children because I was in a mixed marriage and did not have a stable faith in the home. I have two healthy nephews, although they have difficult problems. One was born with no back passage and a deficient kidney, and the other was born with Down’s syndrome. They had no real security of future life, and their parents were advised to abort or to turn off their life support machines. They refused to do either, and those children are now living with difficulty but are surrounded with love and protected by us all. And I would not be without them for a moment. However, abortion, though personally unthinkable, is a complex issue for all of us as legislators and politicans. Alliance has always been a party of freedom of conscience, a party which recognises that although there is strong personal opinion against an issue as sensitive as abortion, individual circumstances must also be taken into account before decisions are made and legislation is drawn up.
We as a party are not in favour of imposing our opinions or prejudices before the needs of the public. Legislation should be drawn up to allow for all eventualities. The criteria of the 1967 Abortion Act are clear enough. Amendments could be looked at for a number of matters. The one which I have a problem with is the period of 24 weeks, which is considered as unsafe in some areas. But abortion on demand is not an option under this legislation.
I do not know how Mr Wells can be so certain of his facts when he talks about how most women have their abortion under category C, and how he thinks —
I will not give way. I am sure Mr Wells can say what he wants to say during his summing up.
Mr Wells said that most abortions are carried out under category C, which covers cases where a pregnancy has not reached its twenty-fourth week and where the continuance of the pregnancy would involve greater risk than if the pregnancy were terminated or injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman. Obviously Mr Wells has never had to prove for himself, but I know women who tried yet found it impossible to satisfy those criteria. His facts are sometimes a bit out of kilter.
At the moment, as others have said, abortion is governed by the 1861 Offences against the Person Act. As we are now in the twenty-first century, do we not deserve better than nineteenth century legislation? Currently we export the problem. Every year, thousands of women travel to England at great expense in terms of time, money and emotion.
Let there be no doubt about the fact that, in spite of Mr McCrea’s comments, women do not lightly choose to terminate any pregnancy. They do it because they feel they must for a number of reasons such as those already mentioned — rape, assault and age. Often these women receive little or no counselling until they arrive in England, because many of the organisations set up to help women with these problems, and perhaps to help prevent unwanted pregnancies, have suffered intimidation and abuse as a result of their efforts to help people in distress.
Suffering the pressures of travel and worrying about the expense that they have incurred, are we really to believe that these women are in the best situation and circumstances to think about and decide on the proper course of action? Are we really to believe that we are best serving their interests by keeping abortion largely illegal here? Because England is so close it is easy for us to keep abortions both illegal and uncommon, but it does not stop abortions from happening, and neither will this motion. All it will do is keep consciences clear.
It is time for us to do more than quieten our consciences. As my Colleague stated earlier, abortion kills. We all know that, but we must look at all of the issues and realise the ramifications of any decision. As politicians and legislators, we must examine the issue, listen to the needs of women and consult the medical profession. This is best done over time and in Committee. We do not seek to justify murder but to allow for the reality of abortion.
After mature thought — not emotional, impassioned and political outbursts — the Committee would be best equipped to make recommendations to the Secretary of State. Let us bear that point in mind. We can make recommendations to the Secretary of State only if all in the Chamber can agree. He or she can then take our wishes into consideration and act upon them. As things stand, we have no power in respect of this issue and, in a sense, it matters not a whit what we say today. Power rests at Westminster, and so this debate could be said to be about sound bites, however impassioned, rather than about the needs of women. Because of the complexity and sensitivity of this issue we need informed and objective advice. I support the amendment.
Abortion is too important an issue to be decided on after four hours of debate. All we are doing is posturing for the media, scoring political points and trying to create the best sound bites. The women —
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for the hon Lady for North Down to mislead the House? This is not a political motion. There is a free vote for all Members from the DUP. This is not a DUP motion. This is a motion that I have tabled. I seek the support of everyone, and I am not doing so in a party political context.
I am fully aware of that, but the Member cannot deny that there are people who have been scoring political points and trying to create the best sound bite. I believe my remarks to be in order.
Women, people and, certainly, the children — born and unborn — in Northern Ireland deserve better. Life is precious. Surveys carried out in 1993 and 1994 showed that three out of four people in Northern Ireland are in favour of abortion —
OK. Let us take the time to act with the courage that Prof McWilliams talked about. Let us do more than make speeches during one afternoon in this Building. Let us discuss the issue over time with consultation and expert advice and support. Let us act responsibly and serve with objectivity the people who elected us.
I support the amendment.
I support the amendment. In tabling this amendment the Women’s Coalition is not promoting abortion; we are trying to ensure that there is a mature and responsible debate to enable the Assembly to make a well-informed decision about the diverse reproductive health needs of women. The effects of the DUP motion —
The effect of Mr Wells’s motion will be to close down the debate, and this health issue is too important for that to happen. A show of hands would not do this debate justice. Our amendment will enable all elements to be examined, and we believe it should be supported.
In fact, it is our belief that we share, to a certain extent, a common aim with the proposer of the motion. We also want to see the abortion rate for Northern Ireland reduced. However, banning abortion will not prevent it from happening. We have heard the figures: more than 1,500 women travel from Northern Ireland to England each year to procure terminations. Also, worryingly, a survey conducted by Dr Colin Francome in 1994 found that 11% of Northern Ireland’s general practitioners had encountered the after-effects of amateur, otherwise known as "backstreet", abortions.
The main effect of banning abortion is to put women’s lives at risk. There have been five known deaths in Northern Ireland as a result of backstreet abortions since 1967. There were no such deaths in Britain in the same period. Additionally, very few of those women who travel to Britain have six-week post-op appointments with their GPs or counselling of any sort. This is so important for their physical and mental health. It may also have ramifications for their future fertility and their emotional well-being.
What makes matters worse is that outdated laws, dating from 1861, 1929 and 1945, govern the legal situation in Northern Ireland. The courts have since offered various interpretations of these laws, but when doctors carry out abortions in Northern Ireland — and, as we have heard, they are carried out under certain circumstances — they do not know whether they may be subject to criminal proceedings. At the very least we need to clarify the legal situation.
How do we go about reducing the abortion rate? We could look at the experience of other countries, and it is very interesting that two Members have already mentioned one country in particular. Joan Carson and David Ervine referred to the Netherlands, and it is true that there are countries where progressive health and family policies are cornerstones. We must address the fact that more of our children are now entering adolescence at the lowest age ever, sometimes around eight. Therefore good, age-appropriate sex education is an important part of the equation as well as free, and freely accessible, contraception.
We have heard that the lowest documented abortion rates are in the Netherlands and Belgium. These are countries that rely on contraception and sex education to maintain low fertility. What our amendment proposes is that we examine what the needs of women in Northern Ireland actually are. We have an unacceptably high abortion rate, and we need to find out why and determine what steps to take, whether that be at policy level, legal level or both. There is no doubt that this is a very difficult and a very delicate subject about which everyone has an opinion, and we have heard all shades this afternoon. I have listened to the opinions expressed before me today, and I shall listen to those after me. It is inappropriate to accuse as criminals, the many thousands of women, young and old, who have had abortions. The Women’s Coalition has established a working group on reproductive rights, and the group reflects the range of views of coalition members. The group’s work has brought challenges from all perspectives. We will conclude the work soon, and I do not want to pre-empt its conclusions here. Suffice it to say that it takes time, effort, and a lot of research and patience to reach a position on this complex issue. A four-hour divisive debate in the Assembly cannot, and will not, do the subject justice.
Let us give the Secretary of State a steer on this matter. Let us vote to refer this complex issue to the Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee. I urge Members to vote for the amendment and against the motion. Thank you.
Abortion is a serious moral issue. At one level it is a choice between killing a foetus and letting an unborn child live. On the surface, it is an easy choice.
Deeply religious people believe killing is wrong in any circumstance, and I respect their right to that view. However, the issue of taking another life is not that simple. We employ an army to defend our country and kill the enemy, if that is necessary. That is a moral dilemma.
Similarly, if your wife and children are about to be slaughtered by a mad axe-murderer and you have a gun in your hand, do you shoot, or do you stand idly by? It would be a moral dilemma but perhaps not for long.
There is an interesting conundrum connected with the stance against abortion, particularly in America, where many of those who vehemently oppose what they see as the murder of unborn babies have no qualms about shooting dead a doctor who carries out abortions. The morality of killing is not an easy issue, and in some cases it is surrounded by hypocrisy.
Other scenarios raise disturbing moral issues. There is the married couple who, in their forties, have a little too much wine on an Italian holiday and realise that a new arrival would cause chaos to their working life and existing family. More seriously, there is the fourteen-year old school girl raped by an AIDS carrying hoodlum. The assault brings with it the possibility that she may become HIV positive. That would be worrying enough for the girl, without her going on to produce a HIV positive child — a constant reminder of the trauma she had undergone. Then there is the discovery, through a scan, that a baby is severely disabled, and the medical advice indicates that the child is likely to have pain and little quality of life. Is it right to bring such a child into the world?
Most of us do not have to face these dilemmas, and it is extremely difficult for those who do. The subject of abortion, particularly in Northern Ireland, sends politicians scurrying for what they perceive to be the moral high ground. That is a comfort zone in which they can avoid having to address the issue seriously, and it is occupied by many here today.
Abortion is lawful in Northern Ireland. It is grounded in the Offences Against the Persons Act 1861, together with Northern Ireland high court decisions between 1991 and 1995 about individuals unable to prove consent by reason of diminished mental competence or age, minors and wards of court who wished to terminate their pregnancies.
Termination of pregnancy is lawful in Northern Ireland under the following conditions: where there is a probable risk of an adverse effect to the physical or mental health of the pregnant women; where there is a probable risk of an adverse effect to the physical or mental well-being of the mother; and where there is a probable risk to the life of the pregnant woman.
There is no provision for lawful termination on the grounds of foetal abnormality, although there are clear indications that such terminations take place here. There is also no provision for termination on the grounds of rape or incest, although opinion-poll evidence suggests that strong popular support exists for such a move.
Figures in 1998 show that around 1,530 women living in Northern Ireland addresses had abortions in Great Britain. Many others are likely not to have given their addresses, so the real annual figure is probably nearer 2,000. This is the political comfort zone which I spoke of. Some might say that we do not need to examine this issue, that those who get pregnant can nip over on the plane and be back the next day, so our conscience is clear. The bad news for those in the comfort zone is that they will not be there for much longer. We in Northern Ireland are about to be overtaken by two waves, which will force us to address this issue properly.
First, there are to be legal challenges in the area of human rights. These challenges will deal with privacy rights, the right of the woman to choose whether or not to terminate a pregnancy and gender equality. Prohibiting abortion has an impact on the life of a woman that cannot be equally imposed on a man.
Secondly, there have been rapid advances in biotechnology and developments in prenatal, genetic diagnostic techniques allowing early identification of genetic abnormalities. In addition, new embryonic stem-cell technology may offer therapies for many degenerative diseases. Such methods require interference with early embryos and foetuses. There is likely to be immense pressure for the law to be changed at Westminster, and here, to allow advantage to be taken of such medical advances.
Those who are fundamental in their beliefs take a clear view on the issue of abortion. I believe that it is a complex issue and that a substantial amount of study is required before those who take a less idealistic view can take an informed decision.
This would be a suitable subject for examination by the Health Committee, which could then report to the Assembly, but it would take a substantial amount of time. It is too early for the Committee to be addressing such a serious issue. The Committee needs to bed down with less potentially divisive topics. We need to address the issue of abortion in detail, but not now.
Assembly Member Jane Morrice says that the effect of the motion today is to close down the debate on abortion. In fact, it does nothing of the sort, and I am disappointed that an amendment has been moved, because that amendment does nothing to deal with the substance of this motion which is abortion on demand. That is what this debate is all about. It is not about abortion per se; it is about abortion on demand.
The Abortion Act 1967 effectively created a climate of medical opinion and of legal opinion that made abortion on demand possible. I do not believe that Mr David Steel or Mr Roy Jenkins, as they were then, both of whom were the architects of that Act, co-authors as it were, intended, or fully intended, that abortion on demand should be introduced to Great Britain. But the fact is that it was, and we know that from our empirical observations, and we know that from the Lane Committee, which declared that this Act had produced exactly that. The Act gives doctors freedom, perhaps too much freedom, to put their interpretations on the concepts of health. One can think of the 1948 World Health Organization’s definition of health, which says that it is a state of physical, mental and social well-being and does not merely mean the absence of disease or infirmity. With that definition a doctor can put a wider interpretation on the physical and mental-health concept than those who take a strictly medical view. And that is, in effect, what has been happening in Britain over the past 40 years.
Doctors have widely interpreted the power afforded to them, diagnostically and otherwise, by this Act. That has led to abortion on demand, and it is that which the House is asked to deal with today — not abortion, but abortion on demand.
Does the House believe that we should endorse abortion on demand? I believe that we should not, and Mr Wells, who moved the motion, has done a good service to the House and to the community by saying clearly that we do not. Producing an amendment which does not tackle this is evading the issue. I wish to see the Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee and, at a later stage, the House dealing with it, and the Committee is in no way constricted by the passing of this motion from dealing with the matter anyway.
If the Member is being deliberately obtuse, I cannot help that.
Although the Abortion Act 1967 is bad, the amendment by way of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 is even worse, for it gives us a 24-week limit — and that is probably the longest in Europe. Holland is the only comparable country. Abortions are effectively legal when performed in the second trimester, and surely that is appalling. In most other jurisdictions, one is confined to the limits of the first trimester at least.
The additional removal of time limits on the grounds of foetal handicap and in relation to the life of the pregnant woman or to grave and permanent injury to her physical and mental health also does much to erode the protection of the unborn. I hope that this motion also effectively refers to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990.
That is an important point. We attempted to table an amendment to the motion to include that, but unfortunately it was too late, and the Speaker ruled it out of order. The intention, however, is to prevent abortion on demand in any form in Northern Ireland, be it under the 1967 Act, the 1990 Act, or any amendment to either.
I thank the Member for that intervention. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, which amended the Abortion Act 1967, effectively presents the House with the 1967 Act as amended. A further amendment by Mr Wells would not in those circumstances be necessary.
We are concerned on the issue of abortion with competing rights, those of the mother, those of the father and those of the unborn child. Those are three competing sets of rights, and we in this jurisdiction, as in any other jurisdiction, shall have to devise ways and means of reconciling them. It is wrong simply to say that there is only one party in this difficult situation that has a right, that being the mother. There are two other sets of rights, and they must also be weighed in the balance. One cannot simply deal with one set of rights exclusively.
There is a strong case to be made for the unborn under article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees the right to life, so the rights of the unborn can in fact be safeguarded under that European Convention. To date, legal challenge has failed in relation to that aspect, but given legal developments and the advances in medical science, that may soon be achieved with the European Court.
Once again we find ourselves debating something in this Chamber which, strictly speaking, does not come under our purview as an Assembly. More and more we will come to see that devolution is, unfortunately, very limited. We have seen that in the Appropriation debate and in other debates already. We must move eventually to maximise the power that we can have within this jurisdiction to organise our own lives. This is one area where, in fact, we should be able to exercise that right and that authority. I support the motion.
As a public representative, I am very happy to speak on behalf of the unborn child. Irrespective of what has been said earlier in the debate, I trust that my remarks will not be construed as political or ill-informed. This debate on abortion has been going on for many years. It is not just confined to this four-hour session. The contributions already made by Members show informed opinion about the subject.
I do not underestimate the serious moral, medical and social issues involved. Since the introduction of the Abortion Act 1967 in England, Scotland and Wales it is reported that 180,000 babies have been killed each year by abortion. Prof McWilliams has already referred to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990. During the Committee Stage of that Bill, pro-abortion MP Emma Nicholson declared
"The Committee should step away immediately from the fiction that the 1967 Act does not provide abortion on request — of course it does."
"General Practitioners in my constituency and elsewhere tell that it is virtually impossible for a doctor to refuse an abortion order under the working of the 1967 Act."
These words are from Hansard of 24 April 1990. The issue at stake when discussing abortion is of course the termination of the life of an unborn child. Abortion is the destruction of human life. Abortion is the unlawful killing of children, which of course is murder. The Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929, on which the current law in Northern Ireland is based, recognises four special circumstances where abortion may be carried out. Those have already been referred to on one or two occasions, and I will not repeat them.
There are built into the legislation the necessary safeguards to cover the special extenuating circumstances that have already been mentioned. Indeed, there are probably those who would have moral difficulties in accepting those exceptions. However, I am of the view that there is no need for an extension of the Abortion Act 1967 to Northern Ireland.
The right-to-choose lobby in the pro-abortion camp cannot sustain its argument if a mother’s action is to kill another human being — her unborn child. The right to life cannot be replaced by the right to choose to kill. The thought of such a philosophy is absurd and revolting in the extreme.
Abortion is a war on youth. It is the wanton and deliberate killing of the youngest and most defenceless of all young people — unborn children. It is also war on women — a war that is disguised as the promotion of their rights. Abortion has devastating physical and mental effects on mothers, a condition which is now recognised as post-abortion syndrome.
When we talk of abortion we are talking about humans — unborn children. Sometimes there is an unenlightened view that an unborn child is something less than human, or subhuman. Yet a child is a living being right from the time of conception. I lament that the child in the womb is not regarded as having any rights. It is both ironic and tragic that animals which, according to the Bible, we are entitled to kill and eat are afforded greater rights and protection than human beings whom the Lord says we must not kill. The Bible, which, as a Protestant, I accept as the authoritative, infallible word of God, and which I regard as my only rule of faith and practice, teaches plainly that the unborn child is viewed by God as an individual, a human being with a soul and with all the properties that we attribute to an adult, except those of full physical and mental development. For instance, Jeremiah, the prophet, was informed by God
"Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations."
One cannot rationalise, explain away or excuse murder. It is not saintly to promote legalisation for abortion. It is more like an unblushing apology for mass murder. Greater access to abortion in our country will surely lead to a litany of broken hearts, ruined lives, butchered babies and the descent of the judgement of God. That price is too high.
I support Mr Wells’s motion.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. As has already been said, Sinn Féin has been debating this issue for many years and will continue to do so. I was struck by Dr Paisley’s reasoned contribution when he said that the life of the mother comes first, and that her physical and mental circumstances should be considered. That is not far from the Sinn Féin position on this vexing and emotive issue.
A LeasCheann Comhairle. The right to life is fundamental, and debate on this matter should be approached with compassion and not with any idea of criminality. Women who find themselves in circumstances that are beyond their control should not be treated as criminals.
Compassion should underlie our views in this debate. I was apprehensive when I saw this motion put down. I am not sure whether this is a proper forum for discussing an issue that goes to the heart of our humanity, both male and female. It is an issue that questions our attitude to life in a fundamental way. It asks where life begins and when, and in what circumstances, it should be terminated. It brings into play all our emotions about life. It raises the vexed issue of the handicapped and those who are perceived to be handicapped from conception in their mother’s womb. I agree with the Members who have said that one can have nothing but admiration for the way the mothers of handicapped children care for them. They did not know that their children would be handicapped, but when they found out they were able to deal with it in a humane, human and motherly fashion.
I want to take up Seamus Close’s point about the medical profession. I have twin grandchildren who were born in the Antrim Hospital three months prematurely. They were smaller than the glass in my hand. For two months doctors and nurses in the maternity unit worked round the clock to preserve those two lives. That in itself was a lesson — for me and, I think, for all the rest of us — that there are people in the medical profession who are conscious of their oath to preserve, maintain and care for life. There are others who take advantage of the circumstances that women find themselves in to abuse their profession by offering abortion on demand. Alban Maginness said that this debate is about abortion on demand. I hope that that is not so. I hope that it is about our attempting to take a compassionate, longer view of this vexed issue.
We saw what happened in the Twenty-six Counties, the Free State, and the mess that it found itself in with the way in which it went about the abortion referendum after the "X" case. It still has not resolved that in spite of all the laws, the barristers, the solicitors and the doctors. It still has not found a way out of the dilemma. Abortion is an emotive issue that affects not just Ireland but England, Europe and America. We have had the contradiction of pro-life people murdering abortion supporters. That highlights the contradiction — [Interruption]
Mr Wells, your intervention —
— almost makes me want to oppose anything you or your party colleagues have said. We are talking about an emotional situation. Let us do it in a reasoned way without your stupid and asinine interventions.
As I said, a LeasCheann Comhairle, this is an issue that has aroused emotions throughout the world. We have had pro-life people taking the lives of those they consider to be on the abortion side. Those are the contradictions and emotions that this debate can let loose. That is why I support the amendment. We should take a reasoned, compassionate and unemotional approach to the essence of life: the unborn.
It has been stressed repeatedly that this is a very serious subject, perhaps one of the most weighty that the Assembly can consider. It is not an issue which is directly within our legislative competence, although this could change in the future. By supporting the motion and, by implication, opposing the extension of the 1967 Act provisions from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, I do not wish to demonise those who support wider access to abortion or those who have, regrettably, felt forced to have an abortion. Nevertheless, I believe that the 1967 Act, as modified in 1990, was wrong in principle for Great Britain and would also be wrong for Northern Ireland if we chose to adopt it.
There are several reasons for supporting the motion, and the first relates to the perennial question, which has been referred to several times this afternoon: when does life begin? Like many in the House I believe that a combination of the precautionary principle, that is erring on the side of caution, Judaeo-Christian tradition and the insights of modern medical science point to life’s beginning at conception. Even if one does not take that view, it remains clear that the practice of the 1967 and 1990 Abortion Acts allows for the destruction of foetuses which are highly developed in human terms.
Secondly, the 1967 Act, whatever its authors intended, provides for abortion on demand. This is not a matter for controversy. Statistics indicate that, in most cases, abortions have been carried out for social and economic reasons — in many cases, for reasons of convenience.
Thirdly, despite claims to the contrary, the majority of opinion in Northern Ireland is against liberalisation of the law. This was recently confirmed in a Queen’s University poll, which was published in the ‘Belfast Telegraph’ on 22 February 2000.
Fourthly, while there may be cases, the so-called hard cases, where abortion is the lesser of two evils, these represent only a very small percentage — perhaps up to 3% — of all abortions currently taking place in Great Britain, and existing law in Northern Ireland (and this has been referred to by other Members) permits abortion in these cases. The cry has gone up, to some degree, for clarification of the law. The same cry for clarification was also made by the principal author of the 1967 Westminster Abortion Act — David, Lord Steel.
Finally, several Members have claimed that our current position on abortion is hypocritical, that we export the problem and salve our consciences. In 1998 almost 1,600 women from Northern Ireland travelled to Great Britain to have an abortion. I regret that. There is an onus on society — particularly on those of us who oppose abortion in principle — to develop fully compassionate alternatives. This would include, for example, better counselling services. I have little doubt that if the provisions of the 1967 Act applied in Northern Ireland, the 1,600 abortions of Northern Ireland origin would be multiplied by two or three, with a consequent increase in human misery. Therefore I support the motion and reject the amendment.
I agree with the Member who said that the debate was about a weighty and powerful issue. I welcome the debate on this issue.
The Health Committee of the Assembly can do much valuable work, particularly in those areas which deal with providing care and support for pregnant mothers. We can provide support, especially in cases where mothers experience difficult pregnancies through medical reasons, and, for example, where they suffer from poverty and inadequate resources.
However, the motion is explicit: it asks us whether or not we support the extension of the 1967 Abortion Act. Respect for life is an important principle for most of us, and for most Christians, and extends to respect for the life of the unborn. Some of the arguments that we have heard earlier today concentrated on the rights of the mother, and the danger to the physical and mental health of the mother of an unwanted pregnancy. The mother’s rights must be respected and protected, and her right to life means she is entitled to any treatment necessary to protect her life, even if as a result, the foetus is lost.
However, the abortion debate is not about life-saving treatment for the mother. The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists reported on unplanned pregnancy in 1972. Referring to the life-saving treatment, it said
"It is becoming increasingly recognised that there is no such danger of injury in the majority of these cases, as the indication is purely a social one".
The hundreds of thousands of abortions every year since the legalising of abortion are performed for what is termed social reasons. This is not to suggest that an unwanted pregnancy is a trivial matter for the mother, but her distress and her rights must be weighed against the fundamental right to life of all, including the unborn. We must remember that direct killing of the innocent is always wrong and that no motive, however good, can justify an action which, in itself, is wrong.
The figures for 1996, which are the latest available, showed the number of abortions as 177,225. Under one category — risk to life of mother — 138 abortions were carried out. Under category B, to prevent grave, permanent injury to the mother, there were 2,471 abortions. Under category F, to secure the mother’s life, there were three abortions. These figures show that only a small percentage of abortions are being carried out for serious medical reasons.
An Act which was claimed to have been designed to protect mothers from backstreet abortionists, and was to be used to ensure safe abortions for mothers whose lives were endangered by pregnancy, is now interpreted in such a way as to make abortion available virtually on demand. There have been very worthwhile contributions during the past couple of hours.
We have heard references to the new beginning that we are embarking upon in this society, and it has been said that we do not have all the answers to this difficult question, that we need an inquiry. I have no difficulty with that. I have no doubt that it would be helpful.
Other Members have told us that, rather than take a vote on this today, we should take a longer view and get some clarification. However, one thing is crystal clear now: if we are serious about creating a just society, we must uphold the fundamental principle of the right to life. That means not just opposing abortion, but working to create a society in which all life is valued and in which that is reflected in how we look after the needs of the most vulnerable, especially the children and the unborn children.
This is certainly a very appropriate debate. Judging by the number of people listening to it in the Strangers’ Gallery and the number of people who have put their names down to speak, it is obvious that it is a debate that touches people’s deepest emotions and their feelings about how things should be done in our country.
I welcome Mr Wells’s bringing this motion before the House and thank him for the way in which he moved it. I had intended to go through many of the details, but much of that has been covered already, so I will concentrate on responding to some of the points that have been raised by other Members.
First, I would like to deal with the issue of abortion on demand. People have said that, legally, we do not have abortion on demand. Well, we may not have it de jure, but we do have it de facto. The simple fact is that the 5·25 million people who had abortions in the United Kingdom over the past 33 years were not raped and their lives were not at grave risk. Many of them had an abortion because a child did not suit their social or career aspirations. A whole host of reasons, but not medical reasons, were put forward so those people could have abortions.
This is something which comes right home to me. I cannot accept that abortion is right or proper. Consider eastern Europe in the Communist era, where abortion was a common practice. In Russia, for example, 70% of pregnancies ended in abortion, and each woman had on average five abortions. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of Communism, countries such as Poland and Croatia and other parts of the former Yugoslavia have seen a fall in the number of abortions. They have more respect for life and for the life of the unborn child.
I have heard the Women’s Coalition representative speak many times, particularly on the issue of child abuse, and I respect the arguments that she puts forward on that issue. She articulates them very well. However, in this situation, she is proposing the abuse of the unborn child. What choice does that child have? Pro-choice is pro-death. That may sound emotive, but it is a fact: pro-choice is pro-death. The child has no choice; he is aborted if his mother so chooses, and that is completely and utterly wrong.
Seventy per cent of children born between 20 and 25 weeks will live, given the proper care. Yet we allow those children to be aborted. Some hospitals are working to keep children alive, while other hospitals are killing them.
Whether the child is inside or outside the womb, it is still a child. I have heard different so-called women’s rights activists — I question this description because 50% of the children who are aborted would have grown up to be women — saying that if a child were taken out of its mother’s womb, it could not live. However, if a child were born after a full-term pregnancy and left to its own devices at the age of one day, two days, a week, or a month, it could not live. It needs the care of an adult, preferably its mother and father. So that argument cannot be sustained.
I am more concerned about the lives of the children than anything else. The one exception is that the mother’s life must come first, but this is already allowed for in law. If we were to introduce the Abortion Act 1967 to Northern Ireland, the child’s life would become of little or no consequence.
Medical evidence has proven that abortion increases the chance of breast cancer by 50%. This is another issue that presents a clear problem for women, and yet we have women’s activists promoting abortion, something that will eventually lead to more women dying of breast cancer. Women must look at this issue realistically and act in their best interests as well as those of the children.
The good Protestants, Roman Catholics and dissenters in the Assembly will back the motion because it is one that protects life and the right to life. Some of those who are opposed to the motion were happy enough to be the apologists for murder in our Province over the past number of years, and so it is not surprising that they are content to allow unborn children to be murdered. The use of the word "murder" in this situation may sound like emotive language, but that is what it is. The child is sucked out of the mother’s womb against its will, it is dismembered and destroyed. Surely that child has a right to life.
I have heard the arguments about aborting children with mental handicaps. I have a brother who is severely mentally handicapped, and I never once heard my mother say that she wished she did not have him. Many of us can benefit from having a child who has a form of handicap, and it is wrong that that child’s life should be destroyed because of it.
I agree with the belief from teachings, expressed by so many Members today, that human life must be recognised and respected from conception. The right to life must not be denied to those unable to defend themselves or to those yet unable to make a case for being allowed to live. Is it not a contradiction for some to champion the cause of civil and human rights 99% of the time and then, conveniently, switch to defend the denial of life to a human yet unborn?
In supporting the motion, I endorse the belief that abortion must never be used as a means of birth control or as a measure to deny life to a child created by God — the same God that most of us believe in and follow in a variety of ways. I have demonstrated respect for life throughout my political career, and I am pleased to be given the opportunity, through Mr Wells’s motion, to continue to do so.
It is with great pleasure that I support this motion, and I commend my Colleague Mr Jim Wells for tabling it.
The motion raises many important issues. It is not about rights. That is the lie constantly pedalled by pro-abortionists. The reality that they prefer not to consider is that what they want aborted is a person. They reject that principle and refuse to use the terms child, baby, or unborn baby. They begin by denigrating the unborn baby, slandering it and calling it names to make abortion more acceptable. By reducing the unborn baby to nothing more than the equivalent of a boil, they hope to remove the shock and vileness of what they are advocating.
Even Claire Rayner agrees that abortion is messy, distressing, bad and difficult, which explains postabortion syndrome. By reducing the unborn to a thing, pro-abortionists can salve their consciences. It is not an issue of religious prejudice over freedom, as pro-abortionists would like. They must begin by rejecting the fundamental principles of Christianity. They deny that God has set down principles by which we should live. It is not simply an issue of Christian principle versus nothing. Pro-abortionists have a religious dogma — a hatred of certainty, a hatred of the law of God, and a hatred of the image of God, which is the religious philosophy of Christianity.
Pro-abortionists like to remind us of how many women have to travel to England to seek abortions. They fail to point out that the overwhelming bulk of abortions are for purely social reasons. Very few are because the mother’s life is at risk. The issue is about cramping women’s personal style. It is about their perceived loss of freedom to do all the things that they want. They see the child as an enemy who must be eliminated. That is why they have abortions. Pro-abortionists want the rest of society to participate in public wickedness. They deliberately fail to acknowledge that by insisting on legalising abortion, they want everyone else to support sin.
The obligates of abortion want the opportunity to practise their vileness, not abroad, but at home at our front door. This is a moral issue of great magnitude. Abortion is but a step to other issues. The pro-abortionists conveniently ignore the hard facts about what happens next. They ignore the fact that the arguments that they use in support of abortion are the same as those used to justify infanticide.
This issue is not about confusion in our law. Pro-abortionists like to pretend that the current legislation is very confusing and that no one is sure of the correct position, not even doctors. That is what pro-abortionists would like us to believe, but it is because the law is clear that they say that, and that is nothing more than a red herring. Were the law to allow abortion on demand, which is the reality in England, they would not have had to falsify the position deliberately. The law is quite simple. There are circumstances when abortion is allowed, and circumstances when it is not.
The pro-abortionists have led a very dirty campaign. One old chestnut, which has succeeded in the past, is about the danger of back-street abortions. They claimed that mothers wanted abortions so badly that they went to the back streets and then died. Pro-abortionists wanted to paint a picture of unrelieved blackness. It is a known fact that in this country, very few back-streets abortions are carried out. Since 1967 scores of women have died, and women are continuing to die every week as a result of legalised abortion.
The pro-abortionists do not want to mention that cost because their real goal is to have a service with only one purpose, and that is to make sure that their lives are not hampered in any way. They are purely selfless and their reasons are social ones.
I am glad to listen to the Chairman and members of the Health Committee. I have had the pleasure of working with them in Committee meetings. I support the motion and I am glad that they also support it. I do not support the amendment. Certainly, I would welcome it in the future, as the Chairman, Dr Hendron, has said, if the matter were to be raised at the Health Committee — and that is the place where it should be raised. It is also very important that the Assembly send out a clear message that it supports the motion put forward by Mr Wells. I am glad that we are speaking for the motion, and I support all the people who have spoken in favour of it today.
I support the motion. If we are guided by the principle that the right to life is sacred, the only conclusion we can reach is to support the motion. There have been some excellent contributions to the debate, although I doubt if any surpassed that of Mr Close. It was an excellent speech, and I want to congratulate him publicly on it. It is regrettable that Mr Kelly of Sinn Feín decided to criticise that speech. Such criticism is very much misplaced indeed, and I say well done to Mr Close.
Those who declared that they would not be supporting the motion, without exception, only considered the rights of the mother. No mention, or indeed very little mention, was made of the rights of the unborn child.
It is a fact of life that if what is done to the child in the mother’s womb were to be done to the same child in an incubator, a charge of murder would be considered and in most cases a prosecution would be brought. It is also a fact that where abortion is legal, violence against children is greater. Where human life is afforded less respect than many forms of animal life, the rights of children always suffer.
If every unborn child could be asked, before it was aborted, "Do you wish to live or die?" could we as an Assembly assume what the overwhelmingly response would be? I have no doubt that the answer would be a resounding "Yes, I want to live." There must be something tragically wrong with a society that will, on the one hand, say that it is all right to kill an unborn child but, on the other hand, boldly declare that it is wrong to have capital punishment for those who commit murder. That demands some explanation. Many people raise their voices in protest and their hands in horror at what they call blood sports, or experimentation on live animals, and at the same time condone a strong lobby for the killing of the unborn children by the million.
We are talking about humans today. We are talking about unborn children. I understand that the baby’s heart is already beating 23 days after conception. As early as two months after conception the baby can grab an instrument in its palm and after nine weeks it can suck its thumb. After three months the baby can kick its legs and feet. It has its own fingerprints — very significant because fingerprints are what distinguish us, one from another. It starts to breathe through the umbilical cord. It has already reached a stage where it is perfectly formed, where it has its own personality, yet under the Abortion Act 1967 that little human being can be destroyed.
(Mr Speaker in the Chair)
Someone described the unborn child as history’s most pitiful victim. My party leader today posed the question: who will speak out in defence of the child? I trust that the Assembly will speak out today and that it will have to be said that the majority of Members were prepared to vote in favour of defending those who cannot defend themselves.
Society is often judged by how it treats its old and aged. It is also judged by how it treats its young and very young. In this case it will be judged by how it treats its unborn. I trust that today the Assembly will rise up in defence of those who are in no position to defend themselves. I fully support the motion.
I did not intend to contribute to this debate. The last time I spoke on this issue was at the thirteenth Annual Conference of the SDLP, which was a long time ago. The contribution I made at that time is basically the same as the one I want to make now.
When Dr Hendron replied to the debate which Jim Wells opened, he stated the SDLP’s policy on abortion. Its policy is to oppose it. It is also to understand the social, economic and personal circumstances that give rise to women choosing an option that most in our society do not agree with — abortion. That is the policy of the SDLP, crafted 13 years ago, and that remains its policy. It is important that that is understood and acknowledged.
This issue is very often debated in an extremist and emotional manner. My sense is that this debate, which I have not heard in full, has not been characterised in that way. In the South of Ireland, a place for which I have a great deal of affection, debate on this matter over the last decade or so has often been characterised not only by deep emotional commitment but also by extremist language and behaviour.
It is a credit to the Assembly, and may be, to a degree, a reflection of the responsibility in the wider society, that this debate has not been similarly characterised. It is also extremely healthy that a number of Members have said that whatever their views on this motion or the amendment, they have a responsibility to go back to this issue in its wider context in the Committee. That is a positive reflection upon everybody in this Chamber. Whatever our differences are on this issue — and there may not be many — there is a wider social, community and personal context that has to be addressed if it is to be more properly understood and managed by us as politicians and by the wider society.
In a previous public role I had some involvement with people who were opting for abortion. It was easy neither for those people nor for those of us who had some degree of responsibility in that context.
The thing that struck me about those women who considered the option of abortion was that they were not selfish, but rather deeply confused and unhappy with the circumstances that had arisen. It was not disrespect for life that led them to choose abortion, but the unhappy and difficult personal circumstances in which they found themselves.
When we deal with this issue we have to acknowledge that, while there are people and societies that choose abortion as a form of contraception, the vast majority of women choose abortion, even if my party and I disagree with that option, in circumstances characterised by their unhappiness and confusion and by the difficulty of the circumstances in which they find themselves. While I have a moral and personal view, I find it difficult to make a judgement about their situations because their circumstances are so difficult that I cannot conceive of them, and I shall never have to.
I hope that when this matter goes to the Committee it will begin to look at the personal, social, economic and cultural reasons for abortions’ being an option for so many people on this island and elsewhere. I refer to cultural issues because our society has developed to the point where consumerism and self-interest rather than a sense of collective responsibility and responsibility to the vulnerable often define our culture. This has led to abortions’ becoming an option and, very often, an easy option for people, and when our culture and values have changed so much that an option of that nature is easily adopted, the issue is much more profound than the circumstances in which these women find themselves.
I also hope that the personal, social and economic issues that have given rise to this culture and this option are more fully explored, for if our young people are not adequately aware of birth control and the need for individuals to take responsibility, they may also behave in an irresponsible manner.
Unless pregnant women are given every reasonable support, be it financial, psychological or emotional, and especially where circumstances are particularly difficult — where the pregnancy is unwanted, or the mother is alone — we will create the circumstances in which they will opt for abortion. They will not opt for life and for bringing up their children in circumstances that are best for all unless we create those circumstances.
The most basic of all human rights is the right to life. No amount of argument, discussion, debate or analysis could ever undermine that fact. In the huge majority of cases, this assertion can be applied without any further thought or question. While I believe that abortion represents a moral issue, I must also emphasise that the wish to prevent birth for purely selfish reasons, such as merely not wanting a child, is in no way, shape or form an acceptable reason for terminating a pregnancy.
There is no way in which the reasons for an individual’s wish to terminate her pregnancy can be standard. Because there can be no defined basis upon which any blanket decision can be made, we can do one of two things.
First, we could apply a rule across the board that in no circumstances, irrespective of the implications of the decision, should anyone be able to choose to terminate a pregnancy. What then do you say to an individual who has been the victim of incest, or to an individual who, through an act of violence, has been condemned to have the child of the man who forced himself on her? How does one justify the emotional pain and suffering inflicted on an individual in these circumstances if she does not have the right to prevent the birth of a child conceived as a result of violent sexual assault?
This is a debate on the extension of the 1967 Abortion Act. The areas that the Member is talking about are already covered by legislation that exists in Northern Ireland. The motion is to prevent abortion on demand from coming to Northern Ireland. There is already provision for dealing with these very difficult cases to which the Member refers.
I thank the Member for his intervention. The issue has to be raised because it is an important one for those people, who may be a minority, who have had to deal with it. I am against this Abortion Act’s being extended to Northern Ireland. I stated that at the beginning, but this is an issue which does cause some concern. If these circumstances are covered by present legislation, that is to be welcomed.
We must also look at the problems facing the ladies to whom this has happened. The act of conception was unnatural and unwarranted. It represents a gross infringement of their rights. How do we justify a situation where a woman who, at the end of her tether and with nowhere to turn, takes her own life as a direct result of being unable to terminate her pregnancy? If we can ensure, under present legislation, that such a lady can terminate her pregnancy, that is to be welcomed. I would be glad to have that assurance.
I intended to ask the Member if he would clarify that in his summing up, but he has done that already. If even one life is lost because of legislation, or rather because of a lack of it, the system needs to be addressed.
The onus and obligation on us are to those whose circumstances are genuine and honest. Therefore, being committed to the principle of maintaining human life from the moral standpoint, we must support the rights and prevent the suffering of the unborn child. I do not believe that, as elected representatives, we have any other choice in this unfortunate matter.
This has been a very thorough debate this afternoon. Our amendment contains the words "and related issues". Given the nature of the debate, we believe that "related issues" need to be discussed. Either Members understand the current situation or they do not. Some Members appear to misunderstand it, and other Members suggest that while they have great difficulties with the issue, in certain circumstances they can understand why terminations take place. That is why it is extremely important for us to refer the matter to the Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee.
Mr Alban Maginness was concerned that a call for an inquiry might be a call for abortion on demand. I assure the Member that that is not the case. When people in the Republic of Ireland made a decision to have a commission on the issue, they were not calling for that. They were calling for an inquiry that would call for opinions from a whole range of medical experts, health professionals, those in education and women themselves. This is an educational issue as well as a health issue. Mr Wells talked about putting an amendment down to his motion, through another Member. His motion is inadequate and needs amendment.
The Northern Ireland Act 1998 refers to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, covering issues such as human genetics, surrogacy and xenotransplantation which have not been discussed in this debate. The Committee on Health, Social Services and Public Safety needs to consider these issues. If we leave it to jurisprudence or to the development of technology, we will be in serious trouble. We will be surpassed and will have to come back to make even more difficult decisions. It is much better to understand the current situation and to find out where Northern Ireland is getting into difficulties.
I say to Members such as Mr Alban Maginness that had he not entered politics he might have gone to the Bench. He could have been in the same position as one of the judges who had to rule in the case of a minor who was raped. What would he have done in that case? I refer too to the term "diminished mental competence", which was another case that came before a court. I ask Mr Jim Wells this question: if he had not gone into urban planning, but had gone into law instead, what would he have done in that case? We need to review these issues because such cases are coming to the courts. It is not to the courts that we should be looking to on health issues. Mental health, non-consensual sex, rape and incest matters, which are not covered under our current legislation, are being ruled on, case by case, in the courts.
Ethics of care should be our approach. Members said that we need to look at the rights of the child, and that is exactly what we are trying to do. Members should understand that we are talking about the principle of consent. Non-consent is a very serious issue. Any Assembly in the world should understand the principle of consent, and this Assembly has had more opinions on that than any other.
Some of the language used today was judgemental. My colleague may have left many women psychologically damaged. I am not sure whether he meant to do that with his reference to murderers, criminals and enemies. There are many women who have had terminations as a result of medical decisions. To refer to them in that way does them an extreme disservice after what has already happened to them, and it may further traumatise them. We need the Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee to tackle this issue. I can understand why people become emotive.
We need to hear from those working in neonatology, paediatrics and obstetrics. Visits should be made to both the Royal and the Mater Hospitals. When the Royal presented its case on the maternity services debate between the City and the Royal, it brought all its figures and statistics. It was very clear that there are terminations for foetal abnormality. Such decisions are made every day. Members of the Committee should make such visits to keep themselves informed of the situation.
I am glad that other Members, such as Mr Attwood, talked about the unhappiness and the confusion. It is clear that the Committee could have considered the issue of teenage pregnancies or the care for a mother who chooses to keep her child. Services here are inadequate. It is still the case that both the mother and the pregnancy have been exported, because we have not dealt with this in the proper manner.
Last night I came from a meeting in London of women parliamentarians from around the world. One was from Kuwait. When asked what it was like for women in their parliament, she said that there were none. We said that obviously that must be difficult. She then said that women are not even allowed to vote in Kuwait. It has been decided that they are not competent to make a voting decision. That is not what we are saying here. We should have referred this issue to the Committee. I hope Members will vote for the amendment. We want to look at the competence of the doctors and of those who are making these decisions, whether they be on foetal abnormality, rape or incest, which, as I said earlier, is currently against the law in Northern Ireland, and the other issues that come before us.
I am grateful to Dr McGleenan of the law department at Queen’s University for some information. He notes that there is a great deal of misinformation about the reasons for abortions, particularly in Great Britain. Members may not be aware that abortion after rape and incest is also illegal in Great Britain. That is why Members quoted figures today that put those into other categories: that category does not exist. The situation in Northern Ireland is different. That is why we need this debate about the period of time during which terminations can take place.
No one wants the 1967 Abortion Act transported to Northern Ireland — that is not what I heard in the debate. What I heard was that people want the circumstances and the situation of Northern Ireland to be considered. When we look at that, we need to look at everything that is happening, or not happening, and the difficulties that we face because no decent consideration has been given to this discussion.
Dr Hendron raised the issue — again, our Committee would probably have been the appropriate place to discuss this — of the psychiatric evidence from those who have had terminations and those who have chosen not to do so. That was the issue in the Republic — the "X" case, in which the woman was attempting suicide — which eventually led to an explosion of debate. We said that we would not set up the Assembly to make policy or legislation on the back of tragedies. Make sure that we do not do that and refer this to the Committee.
I thank everyone who took part in the debate. Some Members must have written notes containing phrases like "a heated irrational debate full of venom", and then forgotten to delete them when they came to speak. I must have been in a different Chamber, because I did not detect that. I heard a reasonably well-balanced, rational debate, which covered the plethora of public opinion on this difficult issue.
Mr Close’s contribution was one of the best I have ever heard in the Chamber, and I have been here longer than some. It was excellent, and far outstripped his contribution to the previous debate in 1984, which I read closely in case he attempted to repeat it today. I was also pleased with the support I received from Dr Birnie, who made a sensible and balanced contribution.
I was delighted with the contribution from Mr A Maginness. I noticed that the clock stopped on several occasions; I wish it had stopped for him and allowed him to continue, because he made some excellent points. I appreciate the wide-ranging support that the motion received. The debate was conducted in good humour and good spirit.
We need to remind Members again about the nature of this motion. It is the recognition of our opposition to the extension of the 1967 Act to Northern Ireland. Quite clearly the 1967 Act has led to abortion on demand in the rest of the United Kingdom. The only Member who dared to suggest otherwise was Mrs Bell. How anyone can interpret 5·3 million abortions as being anything other than abortion on demand defeats me. Eighty-five per cent of the consultants dealing with abortions admit that their hospital has an abortion-on-demand policy. How can anyone claim that there is not abortion on demand in Great Britain? I cannot understand that point of view.
The excesses of the Abortion Act have resulted in huge numbers of people being in a position to demand the termination of their pregnancy, after the most cursory examination of the situation. We do not want that excess imposed in Northern Ireland. Many Members — Mr Morrow and Mr Close in particular — raised the issue of when life starts. Those who spoke against the motion did not question the fact that life begins at conception. The more that we learn about medical science and the complexities of life, the clearer it is becoming that life starts at conception. Children born early, for example, at 30 weeks would have died almost immediately in the past. As a result of medical science increasingly younger lives are now being preserved after premature birth.
Can the Member make a distinction between the point of conception and the point where a mother’s life is at risk? Clearly, the situation is that a termination is performed for an ectopic pregnancy, which is when a pregnancy develops in the fallopian tube. Does the Member accept that while there has been a point of conception, this situation carries an enormous risk for the mother? Would he accept that in this case termination is an acceptable alternative?
Dr Paisley put the case extremely well. This debate is not designed to stop abortion when the mother’s life is genuinely at risk. It is designed to prevent the excesses of the 1967 Act. As I said earlier, only 0·004% of all terminations under the 1967 Act — 212 cases — were carried out for that reason. That leaves 5,299,980 abortions carried out for other reasons. It is no good putting up straw men. The argument today is whether, as a society, we want the excesses of the 1967 Act, which applies to the rest of the United Kingdom, imposed on us.
Will the Member accept that maternal mortality is minimal today and that most cases are not recorded as such? They are recorded under other categories, which means that the argument about the minimal number of cases where the mother is at risk is not substantiated. Terminations are listed under headings such as blighted ovum, ectopic pregnancy, and so forth. Currently that is the case in all maternity hospitals in Northern Ireland.
The situation is that 98·65% of pregnancies terminated in Great Britain are carried out for social purposes, because of a perceived risk to the mental or physical well-being of the mother. This loophole in the law has effectively led to abortion on demand. The only person who disputed this was Mrs Bell.
The point I was making is that when 85% of gynaecologists say that there is abortion on demand, I accept their point of view. This is not just my opinion. Effectively, that is what is happening.
I accept that the Northern Ireland legislation is dated. There are those who have cast aspersions on it because it is based on the Offences against the Person Act 1861. However, even though that legislation is cloudy, ambiguous and dated, it has prevented abortion on demand in Northern Ireland.
I am deeply suspicious of those who demand clarification of the present situation in Northern Ireland. Those demands are exactly the same as those that were made in 1966 by David Steel when he was pushing through his Act. His so-called clarification opened the floodgates to abortion on demand throughout Great Britain.
I can assure Members that had the hon Member for Strangford, Mrs Robinson, not been unwell, she would have been here to support my motion fully. As Dr McCrea said earlier, I resent the view that because I am only the father of three children, rather than the mother, I have no right to have a say on this issue. Like Mr Bradley, another Member for South Down, I represent the overwhelming majority view of the people of South Down on this issue. If the letters and phone calls that I have received since this matter became public are anything to go by, I can walk down the main street of Kilkeel, Ballynahinch or Mayobridge — well, perhaps not Mayobridge [Laughter] — or Rathfriland with my head held high.
The case for the Women’s Coalition amendment has been very ably put by both its Members. I believe they are deeply split on this issue and do not want to face up to it. They should, like my party, have a free vote. We can vote according to our consciences, and I hope that the same applies to other parties.
Does the Member agree that one of the faults with the Women’s Coalition amendment is that, despite all its pleadings today about its concern for this issue, its member on the Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee has, since the Committee’s inception, failed to bring this matter before it? She has failed to make it a matter of public concern and failed to generate debate about it. Fortunately the motion before the House today does so.
As Chairman of the Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee I can say that the issue of pro-life or abortion has not been a subject for discussion by the Committee. I cannot put my hand on my heart and say that it has never been raised at some time under any other business, along with other matters, but it has certainly not been a subject for discussion.
A completely extraneous debate is beginning to develop during the winding-up speech on a motion that has been under debate for some three and a half hours. It is best to proceed to the completion of the winding-up speech, which has only a few minutes left. If anyone returns to this debate I will rule that he desist and that the winding-up speech be completed.
I thank the hon Member for North Antrim for his very useful intervention. I would have thought that had this been a really burning issue for the Members from the Women’s Coalition, they would have initiated a debate on the Floor of the Assembly by putting down a motion themselves. I notice that — [Interruption]
Order. I have already advised the Member, and he has proclaimed to the Assembly his vast experience in the Chamber. He will therefore know that what he is doing is verging on contempt of the Chair, and he should desist. Please continue with your winding-up speech, Mr Wells.
I accept your advice entirely, Mr Speaker.
The other major plank of the Women’s Coalition argument is that a four-hour debate on this subject is totally inadequate. The whole issue regarding the outworkings of the 1967 Abortion Act has to be one of the most debated issues ever, both in Parliament and among the public throughout the United Kingdom. There is no new information available. What can the Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee possibly do in the six months within which it has promised to complete a report? It is quite clear that all the material, all the statistics and all the information that we need to come to a conclusion on this subject have been available for many years and have been well and truly debated.
I was very impressed this evening by the number of Members who have clearly researched this issue, looked at the statistics and provided reasoned, rational argument. I cannot see what the Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee can do to change minds on it. We are well and truly educated about the matter and aware of what is going on. The Women’s Coalition wants to hive this issue off into oblivion in the Health, Social Services and Public Safety Committee in the hope that it will never return.
Why am I insisting that the Assembly come to some decision on this vital issue tonight? In Westminster there is a very active lobby group called Voice for Choice which is seeking to impose the 1967 Abortion Act on this community. I have a leaked document from Voice for Choice, which is supported by 68 MPs. It contains these words:
"to allow abortion on request in the first three months of pregnancy … to place a duty on doctors to declare a conscientious objection to abortion, and refer a woman immediately to another doctor who does not share that view … to extend the amended Act to Northern Ireland."
At present there is pressure in Westminster to extend the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland and Dr Mowlam mentioned that. The last point Dr Mowlam made before she left Northern Ireland was that she wished she had found the time to extend the amended 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland. We must send out this evening a very clear, cross-community message — supported by different parties with different viewpoints — that the people of Northern Ireland totally resist any extension of the 1967 Abortion Act to this community. The way to stop that happening, to put the brakes on this process, is to have a massive vote tonight in favour of my motion. I ask Members to reject the amendment and vote to stop abortion on demand in the Province.
I will finish with this. In the time that this debate has taken, 72 more children have been aborted in Great Britain under the terms of the 1967 Abortion Act. That must never happen in this part of the United Kingdom.
Gerry Adams, Eileen Bell, David Ervine, Michelle Gildernew, Billy Hutchinson, Gerry McHugh, Mitchel McLaughlin, Pat McNamee, Monica McWilliams, Francie Molloy, Jane Morrice, Conor Murphy, Mary Nelis, Dara O’Hagan, Sue Ramsey.
Billy Armstrong, Alex Attwood, Roy Beggs, Paul Berry, Esmond Birnie, Norman Boyd, P J Bradley, Joe Byrne, Gregory Campbell, Mervyn Carrick, Seamus Close, Wilson Clyde, Robert Coulter, John Dallat, Ivan Davis, Nigel Dodds, Arthur Doherty, Sam Foster, Tommy Gallagher, Oliver Gibson, Denis Haughey, William Hay, Joe Hendron, Roger Hutchinson, Gardiner Kane, Danny Kennedy, Alban Maginness, Kieran McCarthy, Alasdair McDonnell, Maurice Morrow, Danny O’Connor, Eamonn ONeill, Ian Paisley Jnr, Ian R K Paisley, Edwin Poots, Mark Robinson, Peter Robinson, Patrick Roche, Jim Shannon, John Tierney, Denis Watson, Peter Weir, Cedric Wilson.
Question accordingly negatived.
Main Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly is opposed to the extension of the Abortion Act 1967 to Northern Ireland.
Adjourned at 5.45 pm.