Lisa Smyth on: Marie Stopes in Belfast: cultural identity or women’s rights?

6 Nov

Why has the opening of a Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast generated such a storm, driven by an unlikely coalition of opponents who cross the usual divisions of politics and religion? Were those protesters who gathered in Belfast’s city centre for the clinic’s opening on 18th October motivated solely by moral commitments? Is there more that can be said about these recent events? Does this and similar protests instead tell us something about the peculiar character of identity politics in Ireland, north and south?

Those who resist legal access to abortion tend to portray their views as representative of what ‘the people’ think. Protesters in Belfast described their position as part of a wider struggle for ‘the soul of Northern Ireland’. Claims such as this are common in public debate on abortion access around the world, despite the deep disagreement this issue actually generates on the island of Ireland and beyond. It does seem particularly surprising to hear statements such as this in a society which is usually instead understood to be deeply divided. It raises questions about whether a society can be said to have a soul, and whether we all know and agree on what that soul might be. Are democratic societies, whether deeply divided or not, ever based on the sort of deep moral consensus these protesters see themselves as defending?

While it may seem that claims of this sort are simply empirical statements about social attitudes or cultural values, they can also be understood as the political claims of moral entrepreneurs, who seek to position themselves as authoritative representatives of the ‘collective conscience’.  It is possible to understand the occurrence of protests such as this not only as a specific reaction to the opening of the clinic, but also as a struggle to secure recognition, from Westminster, Stormont and the region’s inhabitants, of Northern Ireland as a single moral community. Of course, such claims that Northern Ireland is ‘more moral’ than the rest of the UK, and should be treated as such, are caught in a zero-sum struggle. Their success depends on compromising women’s status as individual moral agents, capable of making meaningful decisions in difficult circumstances. Indeed, this conflict echoes that of the Republic of Ireland, where opposition to abortion access has also provided a focus for a much broader conflict over the status of women and the authority of the patriarchal family. While bitter experience has changed the character of this politics south of the border to some extent, as pregnant young rape victims, wards of court, cancer victims and others have all made their way through the courts, the conflict in Northern Ireland has been more muted. It has played out in an apparently ‘exceptional’ region of the otherwise relatively liberal UK, and so tends to remains below the radar of international attention. The opening of the Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast takes place against this background, in a context where women’s entitlement to make major decisions over their own reproductive lives has long been compromised by the claims of culture.

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