Alliance for Choice is an organisation that campaigns for the extension of the 1967 Abortion Act of Northern Ireland. Since 1996 they have been standing up for women’s rights in a country that still regards abortion as staunchly illegal. They face opposition from religiously motivated groups such as Precious Life, but through campaigning on the streets of Belfast and meeting face to face with the public they can present an argument less based in religious rhetoric and more in fact. The arguments for and against abortion rights in Northern Ireland are well documented, and have recently become resurgent due to the comments of DUP MLA Jim Wells (future Health Secretary) who stated that women that have been victims of sexual assault should not be exempt from current abortion law. As we have previously reported both Jim Wells and Jim Allister are members of the ‘All Party Pro Life Group‘ in association with the Northern Ireland Assembly. They aim “to uphold the sanctity of life, including the life of the unborn child and to promote a pro-life perspective in the Northern Ireland Assembly.”
Alliance for Choice’s latest demonstration takes place this weekend (6th October 2012) at City Hall in Belfast to mark ‘International Decriminalise Abortion Day 2012′. To get a better understanding of the group, its aims and its views on opposition, we spoke to Olrlagh McGlade and Goretti Horgan.
When did Alliance for Choice form and what were the initial aims of the group?
Alliance for Choice is an organisation that campaigns for the extension of the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland. It is made up of women and men, from both Catholic and Protestant communities in the North of Ireland, who want to see equality and self-determination for women here. Alliance for Choice was set up in Derry in 1996, emerging from the Women’s Right to Choose Group, to encourage the incoming Labour government to implement Labour Party policy to extend the Act.
Were there any significant influencing factors that led to the formation of the group?
In 2008, a branch was set up in Belfast in response to moves at Westminster to debate the need to extend the Act and given women in NI the same rights over their bodies as women in Scotland, England and Wales. This move was as the result of Alliance for Choice’s campaigning, supported by Abortion Rights and Voice for Choice in London, and represented a real possibility of the extension of the Act for the first time.
How do you feel Alliance for Choice has progressed from its inception to the present?
We feel Alliance for Choice is gradually becoming more visibly active and attracting new members. In July of this year we were part of a counter protest against the ‘Rally for Life’ in Belfast and have started up a pro-choice stall in the city centre on Saturday afternoons to make our presence felt. We feel pro-choice activism has been stirred lately as a result comments made by Jim Wells, in regard to abortion for rape victims, and also by anti choice billboard campaigns in the republic. This year ‘International Decriminalise Abortion Day’ has seen unprecedented support in Ireland with the March for Choice in Dublin, and (hopefully) also at our protest at Belfast City hall on Saturday.
Do you have any standout achievements that you are especially proud of during your work?
We were very proud of the 40 women who travelled to Westminster (representing the 40 women a week who have to leave NI to seek abortions elsewhere. See photos on our website www.allianceforchoiceni.org
Do you feel that the attitudes of the public towards abortion legislation have changed in recent years?
Public opinion in NI has never been properly tested. It’s very hard to know what people think but our experiences on street stalls etc is that, presented with the human situations of individual women, most people accept the need for women to be able to make decisions for themselves about their own bodies, their own lives.
What are your views on Pro-Life groups such as Precious Life that heavily lobby and influence the government?
We are outraged that they seek to further their agenda through deceit; whether that be displaying ‘facts’ and images which do not present the reality of abortion, making unsupported links to breast cancer, inventing ‘post abortion syndrome’ or claiming they speak for everyone in Northern Ireland. While a patronising pseudo-concern for women underlies much of their campaigning, they don’t appear to consider the possibility that forced pregnancy and childbirth is very harmful to women. Precious Life is a religious organisation, characterising their fight against abortion as a ‘spiritual battle’, and they should not be influencing legislation on medical procedures. We believe women deserve more representation and consideration than a plastic womb on a campaign stall.
It has been said that there is no such thing as pro-choice and pro-life, as we are all technically pro-life, and that it should instead be defined as pro-choice and anti-choice. Do you agree with this?
Yes. Groups which claim to be ‘pro life’ and yet focus their efforts entirely on restricting women’s autonomy do not appear to concern themselves with life after birth.
They do not speak up in support of women who require abortions to save their lives, they don’t campaign to help children living in poverty, or fund raise for medical research. They don’t picket the trials of rapists for raping, but they do criticise rape victims for aborting. They see no irresponsibility in encouraging the birth of unwanted children, or harm in violating women’s autonomy to make sure it happens.
It appears instead to be a preoccupation with foetuses, and the influence of religious ideals which deny the reality of female sexuality and seek to restrict women’s autonomy via their biology. This is particularly clear given that groups such as precious life are also against contraception. ‘Anti choice’ perfectly describes a mindset which denies the right of women to decide how their body will be used at all times.
What are your organisations plans for the near future?
After marking ‘International Decriminalise Abortion Day’ this Saturday (see poster!) we plan to do some fundraising, to continue having a presence in Belfast City Centre with our pro-choice stall on Saturday afternoons, and to hold a planning event which will look further into the future.
Thank you very much!
It was a pleasure to speak to Alliance for Choice, and we wish them all the best in the future. If you are interested in showing your support get yourself down to City Hall this Saturday, the demonstration will be taking place right after the ‘March For Jobs’ at approximately 15.30.
“There is no freedom without the right to decide if and how your body is used at all times”
We couldn’t agree more.
By Jason A Murdock