An anti-abortion protest in Belfast. Photo: Getty
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Have we reached the tipping point for abortion rights in Northern Ireland?

A new legal challenge to Northern Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws marks a huge success for the pro-choice movement.

Since Northern Ireland as a state first came into being almost a hundred years ago, stability and constancy have not been its strong suits.

As Northern Ireland self immolated into the violence and political unrest of The Troubles, it brought generations of political chaos for locals, but one element of politics has always remained a constant. Both sides of the conflict have always been able to agree on one common enemy – the woman who wants to choose.

Abortion is still illegal in Northern Ireland unless a termination is required to save a woman’s life or to avoid permanent and serious damage to her health. If the foetus is severely disabled, the woman was raped or conception was a result of incest – terminations are illegal. Access to abortion for Northern Irish women is forbidden under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act and the 1945 Criminal Justice Act.

Thus, in 2015, we mark 70 years since Northern Ireland’s abortion laws were last altered. Since then, the laws have remained fundamentally touched, gathering dust on pages which are themselves naturally disintegrating through the material processes of time. Yet the laws themselves linger on, revered and perfectly preserved, like the relics of a saint.

Today, the High Court in Belfast will hear a legal challenge to the law.

A case brought by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission will be heard as the group argue that terminations should made possible for women who conceive as a result of rape or incest, or where there is “serious malformation of the foetus”. Regardless of whether the legal challenge is successful, merely having the case considered by the court is a huge success for many in the local pro-choice movement. It will be the first major challenge to the status quo in living memory, a once unimaginable point.

The hearing comes quickly on the heels of a number of momentous milestones in the struggle for women’s right to choose in Northern Ireland. The debate has surged forward in the last two years to a point where the law could now feasibly be altered in small, but meaningful ways.

In 2012, the unthinkable and unexpected happened when Marie Stopes opened a private clinic in Belfast city centre. They said they would provide medical, not surgical, abortions up to nine weeks gestation- which they argued was legal within the framework of UK law. Outrage swelled locally and the Northern Irish attorney general, who is chief legal advisor to the devolved power sharing assembly and a devout Catholic, called for an investigation into its legality. However, the clinic has refused to reveal if it has yet performed any terminations in the building and insisted that its actions were legal. After much fury from pro-life protestors, the clinic was officially registered with health authorities the following year and has been allowed to operate.

In December of last year, Justice Minister David Ford announced that he was launching a public consultation to alter the law in case of what he assured the public would be only “two very narrow sets of circumstances”. Namely, when a foetus has a fatal abnormality and is neither viable inside the womb or immediately after birth, or if conception had been a result of a sexual crime such as rape or incest.

A report by Amnesty International in October of last year revealed that 69 per cent of people living in Northern Ireland believe that accessing abortion locally should be an option in the case of a woman being raped. Interestingly, Protestants were more likely to be in favour than Catholics, 73 per cent compared to 62 per cent. 68 per cent of those surveyed felt it should be available in the case of incest, while 60 per cent agreed it should be an option when there was a fatal foetal abnormality.

At least behind closed doors and when responding to surveys in private, the religious rhetoric that once gripped Northern Ireland seems to have lost its grasp.

Yet despite the majority of locals wanting the law to be changed, politicians at Stormont continue to push forward the anti-choice agenda.

The Northern Irish live in a society whose cornerstones are rigid religion and all-knowing patriarchs who decide what is best for the rest of our community. For many of our politicians, their theological beliefs imbue them with the sense of a divine right to impose their religion on others, whilst the legacy of sectarian, bipartisan politics enacts itself here in the refusal to budge an inch from unflinching, absolutist stances. This culture has lead to politicians continuing to push a line which doesn’t reflect what its citizens want when it comes to modernising the abortion laws.

Only one in five members of the Northern Ireland Assembly are female, meaning that the state has the lowest numbers of female representation of any devolved institutions in Western Europe. This means that the voices of women in Northern Ireland often go unheard. Indeed, in response to Minister Ford’s consultation on changing the abortions laws, BBC Northern Ireland held a debate which saw a male interviewer discuss the issue with three men and one woman. It’s difficult to imagine the English BBC getting away with doing the same, but here no-one batted an eyelid at the idea of men dominating discussions on women’s rights.

The Republican party Sinn Fein is the only major political party to support changing the abortion law. The left of centre nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party is theologically catholic and firmly “pro life”, while the hardline right wing Democratic Unionist Party holds the same view based on its Protestant values. Of the remaining major parties, the Ulster Unionist Party and the centre ground Alliance Party say that it is a matter of personal conscience for each of their politicians to decide.

Yet, while the men on Stormont Hill pout and pontificate on the matter, more than a thousand Northern Irish women fly above their heads each year on budget airline carriers destined for England, in order to access basic healthcare.

Northern Ireland lags severely behind the rest of the UK when it comes to social attitudes. The fight for reproductive rights will be a long battle. We’ve long passed the tipping point socially, and next week’s High Court hearing and the Justice Minister’s consultation could see this finally reflected legally.

Allowing women to have a termination after rape, incest or a fatal abnormality of the foetus, would not bring local women the rights of their sisters in the rest of the UK. But it would be a meaningful start. To alter Northern Ireland’s abortion laws for the first time in seventy years would be a hard won battle in a severely stagnant society.

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear