Melanie McDonagh

The BBC’s bias on abortion in Northern Ireland is breathtaking

The BBC’s bias on abortion in Northern Ireland is breathtaking
Text settings

The establishment has a target in its sights; you can always tell from the tone of the Today programme. In this case, it's Northern Ireland’s abortion law. The occasion is the genuinely tragic case of Sarah Ewart, who travelled to Britain this week in order to abort a foetus with the most severe case of spina bifida, which meant it didn’t have a head. She didn’t want to carry the pregnancy to term and Northern Ireland’s abortion laws at present don’t allow for abortions where the foetus does not actually threaten the life of the mother. Not unlike the intention behind the 1967 abortion law here, then, which is meant only to sanction an abortion where the risk to the mental or physical health of the mother is greater than if the pregnancy continued.

Most people would accept that a baby without a head is, to all intents and purposes, not a baby, not a person; different rules could legitimately apply here than to a foetus which was severely handicapped but viable. Ms Ewart’s case was, however, dealt with by the BBC Today programme with the lack of objectivity which abortion invariably elicits. ‘What is the justification for this law?’ Jim Naughtie asked, with palpable incredulity. ‘What about the woman’s right to choose...or whatever you want to call it?’ His interlocutor was Dr Fiona Bloomer, who lectures at the University of Ulster, and who conceded that most of the thousand odd women who travel to Britain from Northern Ireland for abortions every year were not in Ms Ewart’s position, but ‘we should be careful not to stigmatise these women’. But of course. Her suggestion that there was a majority in Northern Ireland in favour of ‘reform’ was accepted.

Now, although this case is probably sufficiently difficult to warrant a change in the way the law is interpreted, there is absolutely no demand in Northern Ireland for an abortion law that operates like it does in the rest of Britain. The Northern Ireland Justice Minister, David Ford, made that much clear.

What is interesting here is the nakedness of the bias in the BBC when it comes to abortion. Can anyone conceive of Mr Naughtie bringing the full force of his incredulity to bear on the way the 1967 Act operates here, the way doctors approve terminations without actually seeing the patient, the palpable reality that in the overwhelming majority of cases there is no real risk to the mental or physical health of the woman concerned from continuing with a pregnancy, the way that disabled foetuses are – in a particularly revolting amendment to the law – allowed to be aborted right up to birth? Nope, I can’t remember the Act being scrutinised that way, ever.

And when it comes to the examination of this case on Woman’s Hour, what are the chances of any Northern Irish woman actually opposed – as most are – to abortion coming on the programme? Or will it be a pro-choice propagandist like Dr Bloomer? You guess.