Positive Signs for Prochoice Movement in Northern Ireland

The most recent issue of Conscience had an interesting article, “Ireland: When Church Is State” (Vol. XXXVII, No. 1) by Ailbhe Smyth, chairperson of the Repeal the 8th Campaign. In it, Smyth explores the often complicated relationship between the state and religion and how that impacts the struggle for human rights and equality. Church scandals, including the oppression of women and the sexual abuse of children, have challenged many people to rethink where their moral authority may come from.

Northern Ireland is no different in this regard. Marriage equality and abortion rights continue to be subjects upon which the churches make pronouncements. Some politicians refuse to face the reality of these issues.

During our recent Northern Ireland Assembly election campaign, a young woman was convicted under the 1861 Offences Against the Persons Act. This is the same law mentioned by Smyth in her article, a piece of Victorian law that remains on the statute books across Ireland and Britain. This young woman was found guilty and given a deferred prison sentence for procuring her own abortion. She bought pills off the Internet because she could not afford to travel to England for a safe and legal abortion. The prosecuting judge said this woman would never have been before the court had she not been poor.

At the same time, the Catholic hierarchy in Northern Ireland issued a statement urging people not to vote for candidates in favor of reforming abortion law or supporting equal marriage. There was no mention of the criminalization of women for accessing a healthcare service freely available across the water. Many incumbents who supported the churches’ view lost their seats, and the election returned more prochoice candidates than ever before. Interestingly, one of the first actions of the new health minister was to overturn the ban on gay men donating blood. These are positive signs and a further indication that people may be more “culturally Catholic” than morally Catholic.

DAWN PURVIS
Alliance For Choice
Belfast, Northern Ireland

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