Atheism, Religion and Abortion Access in Northern Ireland

Right, welcome reader, I’m afraid I’ll have to bore you with some definitions and then we can move on.

“Pro-life”: The view that abortion ought to be inaccessible to women. The means by which this tends to be done is criminalisation. Some people identify as pro-life but do support exceptions for rape/incest.

“Pro-choice”: Abortion should be accessible to women. Term limits of pregnancy tend to vary, but in general pro-choice means it’s the woman’s choice.

“Secularism”: The position that religious views ought not play a role in government/education/healthcare and other public parts of society, but are for personal and religious life.

The abstract of the article is the following:

  • Religious views in NI drive abortion law.
  • Churches tend to misrepresent their members.
  • Despite members being more liberal, religions tend more towards pro-life views than pro-choice views and will resist any legal change.
  • Secular/atheist groups tend to be exclusively pro-choice in NI, religious groups tend to be exclusive pro-life in NI.

The legal and practical situation in Northern Ireland
A very, very brief summary of the situation in Northern Ireland: Abortion ought to be accessible to protect life and (mental) health of the mother. [1] Rape/incest/when the fetus has a very severe defect that is lifelimiting are specifically excluded.  Doctors say the current guidelines are not workable [2] and in practice access to prevent health issues is hit and miss. A thousand women travel to England each year, how many take abortion pills or go to Europe is not known. [16]

Human rights groups such as Amnesty and the Human Rights Commission have pointed out the current situation is in breach of human rights legislation and a judicial review is granted by the NI High Court to assess the current situation [3].

The NHS does not fund abortions for women with addresses in Northern Ireland, so travel and abortions have to be paid for with costs from £400-£2000. So, this leaves some people in dire straits. Luckily a charity called Abortion Support Network can help with the logistics/costs, but the stories of women involved aren’t happy reading. [12] They take donations.

Right, you wonder, what does this have to do with religion? Can one be atheist and pro-life, or religious and pro-choice? I’ll try to draw some conclusions based on census/survey data and groups that campaign on the abortion laws in NI.

General Public Surveys
Polls in NI tend to only split on the Catholic/Protestant question, so unfortunately we can’t draw conclusions on atheists and abortion from the data. Polls do consistently indicate that most people are in favour of exceptions for health reasons, rape, incest and severe fetal abnormalities.

Polls by Amnesty, the FPA and The Belfast Telegraph showed a majority supports access to abortion in cases of rape and incest. [5][6]. Another Belfast Telegraph survey found 58% of participants support abortion for any reason. [4] Another recent survey found 56% of people in NI support legal abortion “for some reasons”[11].

But, per the Census data only 16.9% of people in NI state no religion.

So, if a majority of people support legal changes it clearly can’t just be the non-believers/atheists as they are currently in the minority. So, what do the churches state on the legal position of abortion?

Church positions
The Catholic Church only supports abortion to save a woman’s life, and opposes it for health reasons, rape/incest and severe abnormalities.

Protestant churches, with the main denominations being the Presbyterian church and the Church of Ireland, only support cases of severe health issues, though it’s clear they want the controls to be very strict. So the big NI churches are all against legal reform in NI.

But per the census data of 2011 total 73% of people state they belong to a church that wants no legal reform. [7]

Hmm, so then how does a majority of people then consistently favour legal changes in opinion polls? We might expect a majority should be against, but in fact a majority is in favour.

Does this mean they don’t take the theology of their church literally? And if that’s the case, then what exactly is the mandate of the churches to speak on their members’ behalf? It seems the churches don’t represent their members’ views.

What about pro-life political parties that come out against abortion access?

Surveys of religious groups/political parties

Ah, the DUP, the party responsible for a health minister that doesn’t accept exceptions for rape/incest with a party leader that says he does. Based on a survey from 2012, 50% wants access for rape/incest, 42% doesn’t. Their membership is clearly conservative and religious, but again it’s not the clear majority church membership should suggest.

Technically not a Catholic party, but under the leadership of McDonnell it’s taken a turn in that direction. Officially pro-life, 54% of members do want a change in the law. So again, we don’t get a majority against reform.

The more you look, the more it seems on a personal basis religion is a complete red herring as churches offer a position that their members may not support. What about other groups that are involved in the legality of abortion in NI?

Positions of non church based groups in NI
There don’t seem to be any secular pro-life groups active in NI. All NI based secular groups like the NIHRC, Alliance for Choice and the UK wide FPA are pro-choice.

Atheist NI is yet to have an AGM, but as it’s a secular group representing atheists and human rights, its highly unlikely it will not take a pro-choice position after the AGM has been held.

The major pro-life groups in Northern Ireland are Precious Life, SPUC, CARE, the Christian Medical Fellowship, Evangelical Alliance. These groups are UK based…and all religious.

Catholics for Choice is the only religious pro-choice group active in NI but they are USA based. For the purpose of a pure NI group they don’t count. Note that the pro-life Stanton clinic in Belfast is also religious and of USA origin.

I think we can conclude that in NI, atheist/secular groups are pro-choice and religious groups are pro-life.

Atheism and a position on abortion
What about the ethics of atheism and abortion? Can any conclusions be drawn? Technically, no, as atheism is not morally prescribing.

But, ideas don’t exist in a vacuum. We already have seen that religious groups find the abortion question so important they will campaign against any access, whereas secular groups emphasise human rights and campaign for those.

There is something going on, a cross contamination of ideas on women and personhood I suspect. Bear in mind that in the main religions in NI women aren’t given leadership positions, and are traditionally seen as childbearers. On top of that “Life begins at conception” is often trotted out, as if that means you can ignore human rights and fetal development and it’s fine and dandy to treat women as walking baby-producing vessels instead of people.

The main churches seem to consider the moral and legal personhood of women as less than of future people.  With no definition either of personhood, no definition of how far the pregnancy is, they may as well count every implanted egg sacred, to the detriment of human agency and to the policing of women’s bodies. Their members’ views appear more nuanced.

I, personally, would find it bizarre to be pro-life as an atheist:

Atheists get minority rights protection in human rights frameworks.  Abortion access is also scoped within human rights. Isn’t it a bit rich (and that’s true for religious groups too) to claim your own human rights to personal life, privacy, protection from cruel treatment, health care… and not grant others theirs?

Based on the survey data I can find, and the overwhelming pro-criminalisation views of religious groups, I can only draw the conclusion that religion has a net negative effect on a change in abortion law in NI.  This despite religious people probably being more liberal than the churches they are members of.

There’s no hard data on individual atheist views in NI, but secular/atheists group do tend to be pro-choice. But to me, being atheist and pro-life is an oxymoron. Really, you want your own rights to health/privacy/protection of cruel treatment but not give those to others?

Thanks for reading, and hopefully you found this interesting.

jawineAbout the author
Jawine Westland was born and brought up in The Netherlands and has been an atheist since the age of 20. She was brought up as a Protestant. She moved to Northern Ireland in 2002.

She is currently studying at the Open University for a Computing and Maths degree, and works in IT. She has a child and is one of the founding members of Atheist N.I.

[1] BBC News – Q&A: Abortion in NI

[2] BBC News – Abortion: Doctors tied to ‘apron strings’ of legal profession

[3] BBC News – Northern Ireland abortion laws case granted judicial review

[4] Belfast Telegraph – Poll shows 69% support changes to abortion law

[5] Amnesty International – Politicians in Northern Ireland ‘way out of step’ with electorate

[6] FPA – What do people in Northern Ireland think about abortion?

[7] The Detail – The Northern Ireland Census: Religion and identity mapped

[8] Wikipedia – Religion in Northern Ireland

[9] Presbyterian Ireland – Presbyterians welcome proposed abortion amendment

[10] Anglican Communion News Service – Church of Ireland opposes abortion, acknowledges ‘exceptional cases’

[11] RTE Prime Time Special – Ireland’s Call

[12] Abortion Support Network – Annual Reports

[13] National Secular Society – Northern Ireland anti-abortion measure “strongly supported” by religious groups

[14] Belfast Telegraph – 40% of grassroots DUP members at odds with Peter Robinson on marches and abortion

[15] Belfast Telegraph – Majority of SDLP is in favour of relaxing abortion law

[16] BBC News – Northern Ireland women lose abortion ruling appeal