Category Archives: Women

A group of individuals in Northern Irish politics obstructs change

In a matter of months, the Republic of Ireland will hold a referendum on repealing the eighth amendment of the constitution and paving the way for legal abortion for the first time in the country. With both the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, and the leader of the opposition, Micheál Martin, declaring that they will campaign for repeal, and with the electorate broadly supportive of the move, change looks likely. Following only three years on from the country’s historic same sex marriage referendum, Ireland appears to be moving from one of the more socially conservative countries in western Europe to one which is signalling a new, liberal dawn.

By contrast, Northern Ireland has not seen similar sea changes. Same sex marriage remains illegal and the 1967 Abortion Act, which legislates for the procedure in England, Scotland, and Wales does not apply. Abortion is only allowed in a very small number of cases in Northern Ireland, and is not automatically legal in instances of rape, incest, or fatal foetal abnormality. Although Northern Irish women can now access abortions on the NHS in England, thanks to Stella Creasy’s amendment to the Queen’s speech, this does nothing to change the strict legal situation in Northern Ireland, nor does it help with the financial costs of travelling for the procedure.

The absence of policy movement in either of these areas is often chalked up to Northern Ireland’s difference, especially the strength of Christianity (both Protestant and Catholic) within its population. Indeed, in the wake of the DUP confidence and supply arrangement with Theresa May’s government, much was made of the DUP’s social conservatism in the British press and Northern Ireland’s variance from the rest of the UK.

Yet the restrictive situation in Northern Ireland can equally be explained through the politics and institutions of the region. Abortion in particular has long been a political football in Northern Irish politics following devolution. As early as 2000, the Assembly debated the motion that it was ‘opposed to the extension of the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland’, despite the fact that there was no attempt from Stormont or Westminster to do so. Following a 2004 ruling, the Department of Health at Stormont was ordered to produce guidance for medical professionals outlining the specific circumstances in which termination of pregnancy was legal. It took until 2016 for this guidance to be officially released, the intervening years seeing a period of legal and political blockades thrown at them. In 2012, a Marie Stopes clinic opened in central Belfast, operating under the strict legal parameters that Northern Ireland allows for, and has excited much political debate and energy at Stormont in the years since.

For much of Northern Ireland’s devolved period therefore, abortion has been a political stumbling block. In particular, a handful of key individuals have driven this pattern of obfuscation and resistance. Jim Wells, who stepped down as Stormont Health Minister in 2015 following comments he made about homosexual parenting, has been a key critic of any attempts to change abortion law, and instigated a debate on the issue in Stormont in 2000. In the mid-2000s, Iris Robinson lead the way in trying to ensure that proposed guidelines around abortion were obstructed via the Assembly. In 2013, Paul Girvan DUP MLA and Alban Maginness SDLP MLA attempted to outlaw any private abortion providers in Northern Ireland which would have closed down the newly opened Marie Stopes clinic in central Belfast.  These individuals have come from very different political parties and from across the ethno-national divide. Although mostly men, this largely reflects the male-dominated make-up of the Northern Irish Assembly.

Feminist political scientists have long employed the concept of ‘critical actors’ to refer to key individuals who instigate positive change within political institutions. Stella Creasy’s amendment, discussed above, is one such example of an individual politician working to enact huge change. Using the example of Northern Irish abortion politics following devolution, I argue for an understanding of conservative critical actors as well as progressive critical actors.

Over a period of years, movement on abortion has been stalled, not just by the male-dominated nature of the political institution, nor by party policy on the issue, but also, as detailed above, by a key group of individuals in Northern Irish politics. When considering why some policies are difficult to change, or even to implement at all, consideration must be given to the actions of individual members of political institutions. The role that they can play in encouraging or obstructing policy change can be as important as the role of parties, formal rules or the nature of political institutions themselves. This has been the case in Northern Ireland, where a small number of critical actors have obstructed change on abortion for many years.

Attempts to change abortion policy at the moment are also not helped by the fact that Northern Ireland is facing one of its most challenging political periods in decades. With the Assembly suspended now for over a year, and talks to reinstate it failing in February, the hope for reform any time soon appears bleak. Should direct rule occur, Westminster will have the power to enact change on abortion in the region. With reform so long stymied in Belfast, the transfer of powers to London may open the door for abortion change in Northern Ireland.

First published on the British Politics and Policy blog

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The CCG have decided to restrict discussion on the future of the hospital to just one option, not the four explicitly
promised.

The North of England Clinical senate has advised on this single option. The North of England Clinical senate is not a neutral body but one that works within the Government plans for the NHS, which includes privatisation and shrinking services. It is not a neutral body.

  • The move will be massively costly, over £10 million. This at a time the Royal College of Nursing says nursing staff shortages are compromising patient care, staffing is so tight that patients can be left to die alone. The removal of bursaries is hitting recruitment.
  • Services across the country are being restricted.
  • The actual problems at the Liverpool Women’s Hospital cannot wait the 5 years or so a new building might take, The neonatal unit needs to expand and update, the blood services (not just at LWH) and imaging need to be improved, now.
  • Maternity care facilities are being cut across the country and the pernicious Maternity Review is being
    implemented. This area is a maternity vanguard area. They are on record as saying they want women to give
    birth at home, not in a hospital. See our facebook for the video
  • The US model of care to which the NHS moving, does not cater well for maternity. Texas has the highest
    maternal mortality rates in the developed world
  • The NHS in the north of England (covered by the NHS Senate,that penned,the report) also said,
    Women in labour can safely travel four hours without risk to their baby.
  • Many hospitals are on more than one site, including both the Liverpool Royal and Arrowe Park, yet it is said to be too dangerous for the Liverpool Women’s to be a mile away from an acute hospital? One mile away is dangerous, we are told, yet women giving birth at home could be many miles away.
  • At Free Standing midwife units, (unlike the alongside midwife led unit at our hospital) one in four women need to be transferred to hospital. On that basis, this must also be dangerous. Yet four hours travel in labour is safe?
  • Most of the cost problems in Liverpool Women’s hospital come from the internal structures and systems of
    the internal market in the NHS.
  • The Maternity Vanguard are intent on setting up a “pop up” maternity unit to “explore women’s choices”. No mention of the choices tens of thousands of women have indicated in our petition. Choosing our choices
    for us it seems.
  • The NHS needs to be fully funded with more beds doctors and nurses and midwives and related professions.
  • The STPs and accountable care organisations are a risk to the whole NHS, free at the point of need,  publicly provided and a universal service. Merseyside and Cheshire STP is one of the largest.
  • PFI hospital building has wasted billions of pounds of taxpayer money and not one is fire safe. The private companies get the fees and profits and guess who pays to make these brand new hospitals fire safe?
  • Staff still work under the pay cap and many cannot make ends meet. What does Hunt the health secretary offer? An app to let you do more shifts.
  • Not one mention of the major problems of traffic pollution at the proposed site which especially damages babies in the womb and new borns. The site proposed will include the Cancer centre and a life sciences commercial building, bringing in still more traffic. Can we have some joined up thinking please?

How you can be involved?

Invite our campaign to meet a group of your friends or your organisation. Ask us to your union meeting. Come to a campaign meeting. Leaflet your street.

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The historic 1967 Abortion Act is 50 years old this month, yet this fundamental part of women’s health care continues to be a fiercely contested issue. There are still politicians who want to turn back the clock and win support for complete opposition to all abortions in any circumstances. Tory MP Jacob Rees Mogg declared this as his view only last month, although his position was swiftly undermined by revelations that he profits from shares in a pharmaceutical company that produces abortion pills.

Rees Mogg’s desire to deny women any rights to legal abortion is a minority one in Britain. Here a clear majority, 70 percent in the most recent British Attitudes Survey, support a woman’s right to choose. But there is no room for complacency when women in one part of the UK, Northern Ireland, have no right to abortion unless they travel to Britain. The 1967 Act was never extended to Northern Ireland and thousands of women needing an abortion have had to cross the Irish Sea to access a legal termination. As an added injustice, until recently they also had to pay for it. This was only overturned in June after the snap general election when the Tories courted the anti abortion Democratic Unionist Party for support to win the Queens Speech. The ensuing outcry forced Theresa May to ditch the requirement for women from Northern Ireland to pay for terminations.

Today the increasing vocal pro-choice side is highlighting the plight of women living in countries where abortion is banned, including on both sides of the Irish border. In the Republic of Ireland more than 40,000 people poured through the streets of Dublin on Saturday for the sixth annual March for Choice to demand a repeal of the eighth amendment to Ireland’s constitution. This amendment deems the rights of an embryo equal to those of the woman carrying it, at any stage of the pregnancy. This law against abortion doesn’t stop abortions happening, it simply exports them. Thousands of women are forced to travel to England to enable them to take control their own fertility. Over 200,000 women have travelled to Britain from Ireland to have an abortion since the 8th amendment was enacted in 1983.

After last year’s March for Choice, the Irish government handed the issue to a Citizens’ Assembly to examine and debate. The Assembly came out with a clear call for a change in the law, showing just how much attitudes are changing in Ireland. Last week the government finally announced it would hold a referendum on the question in 2018. This provides opportunity to overturn more than a century of anti-abortion legislation in the country, which up to 2013 included the 1861 Offences Against the Person act. This archaic law is still in place in Britain and it makes having or carrying out an abortion a criminal act punishable by life imprisonment. The 1967 Abortion Act did not replace this act, instead it created exceptions to allow legal abortions when certain conditions are fulfilled.

Even 50 years ago these conditions were restrictive, now when the majority of abortions are carried out by taking pills they are an oppressive anachronism. The website Women on Web reported that they receive requests from women living in Britain for abortion pills because access to abortion services is limited by the requirements of the law. The reasons women gave for contacting the website included the distance from a clinic providing abortion care, long waiting times, childcare responsibilities and the difficulty of getting time off work. But any woman in Britain who uses pills bought online potentially risks a prison sentence because of the strict controls over how abortion services are provided.

This is a situation that cannot hold. The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists joined the British Medical Association and the Royal College of Midwives last week in calling for abortion in Britain to finally be removed from criminal law and be treated as simply a medical issue.

Repressive laws and attitudes to women’s rights to control their own bodies are being challenged across the globe. While online access to sites such as Women on Web saves lives, millions have no access even to this service. The World Health Organisation estimates that 25 million abortions globally are unsafe, that’s almost a half of all terminations.

In Britain the fight is on to defend the rights won by past generations but to also extend those rights to allow genuine reproductive choices. Whatever the utterances of anti abortion campaigners such as Rees Mogg, pro-choice activists are on the march and determined to win the long-running abortion wars.

First published on the Policy Press blog

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We call for protection of women’s rights:

  • Guaranteeing family friendly employment terms and conditions affecting morale, recruitment retention of women including Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender people.
  • Fertility control In Vitro Fertilisation, contraception and abortion access: thus protecting women’s mental health, finances and family stability
  • Safe childbirth for every woman. Risk assessment for home births (evidence of deaths increasing)
  • Reverse the outsourcing of maternity services.
  • Increased support for carers, to improve health and protect people from poverty.
  • Integrate the care system with the National Health Service to be free at the point of use, paid for by taxation.
  • Employ nurses in care homes and improve training and terms for care workers.

Equality:

We call for protection of women’s rights with respect to equality which addresses:

  • the long-term impact of domestic abuse, in the widest context, on health
  • the impact of gynaecological intervention that harms women internally e.g. mesh implants and externally e.g. Female Genital Mutilation.
  • the impact of caring on mothers of children who have specific and higher needs over their lifetime
  • the effect on women refugees and European Union migrants of the new United Kingdom Comprehensive Sickness Insurance regulations involving healthcare charging
  • the quality of and accessibility to women’s mental health services, including primary post-partum treatments.

This is to be presented to the Labour Party Women’s Conference 2017

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