We are often told that ignorance of the law is no excuse, but what are we to do when nobody will say what the law means?
The High Court in Belfast has said NO to a request that it spell out what is legal and what is not. The Family Planning Association had asked it to order the Department of Health to publish guidelines about when abortion is legal in the six counties.
The ruling restates the existing law, that abortion is legal if in the clinic judgement of a woman's doctor the physical or mental health of the woman is at serious or grave risk if she continues with her pregnancy.
Some doctors would interpret this fairly liberally, that compelling a woman to continue an unwanted pregnancy could put her mental health at serious risk. But, as there are no clear guidelines, those doctors could then be open to legal action from anti-abortion pressure groups.
This legal confusion has meant that the vast majority of northern Irish abortions happen in England. And this is why Northern women are three times more likely to have a late abortion. The delay is caused by the time spent having to find in the region of £700 for the clinic and travel costs.
If abortion were freely available on the health service why would any woman choose to have a late abortion? In Britain over 90% of abortions are carried out before the 12th week of pregnancy.
The 20th anniversary of the anti-choice referendum of 1983 saw the launch of a new pro-choice campaign, 'The Alliance for Choice' launched in Dublin. Since 1983 over 100,000 Irish women have had to travel to England for abortions.
At the launch Cathleen O'Neill, drawing on her experience over the past 20 years said:
"If I had a pound for every fundraiser I worked on to help working class women go to England for an abortion, I'd be a rich woman. Taking children into our homes for the duration of the visit - pretending that Mammy was gone to a funeral; holding pub quizzes, and running limited draws, as well as running sales of work and raffles under weird and wonderful names to preserve anonymity. Almost every other week. It's bad enough for those who can afford to travel, but for poorer women it's hell. It's time those who claim to represent us to get a grip on reality and take steps to end this nightmare."
The Alliance for Choice can be contacted at AfC, PO Box 8852, Phibsboro, Dublin 7 or by email at email@example.com
This edition is No77 published in September 2003