The Medical Students for Choice (MSFC) society at Queen’s University Belfast held a panel discussion on Tuesday evening this week entitled “Why Women Die”. Medical Students for Choice QUB is the Queen’s University Belfast wing of a not for profit organisation dedicated “to ensuring that women receive the full range of reproductive healthcare choices”.

The panel was made up of Professor Jim Doran former senior vice president of the Royal College of obstetricians and Gynecologists, Dr Fiona Bloomer a social policy academic from the University of Ulster, Mark Benson a PhD student whose field of study is abortion and the medical profession and Grainne Teggart Northern Ireland campaign manager for Amnesty International.

Ms Teggart was the first speaker and began by talking about the barriers to women seeking reproductive services across the world, using El Salvador as one particularly depressing case study. According to Ms Teggart, the central american country is bucking the worldwide trend towards liberalisation by criminalising abortion. This has led to some harrowing stories, documented in Amnesty’s report On the brink of death: violence against women and the abortion ban in El Salvador, of women and girls being sentenced to jail for miscarriages. She then moved on to discuss Amnesty’s campaign for sexual and reproductive rights in Northern Ireland. One of the major issues of concern for Amnesty is that the Department of Health has yet to issue guidelines for doctors on when abortion is legal, creating a “climate of fear”. Without guidelines it is difficult for doctors to know where they stand legally when asked to perform an abortion.

“Dr Bourne was tried under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, the one still used here in Northern Ireland.”

One doctor who faced similar circumstances was Dr Aleck Bourne. Mark Benson, a Phd student, went into the history of abortion legislation in the UK and as part of that told the story of Dr Bourne. In 1938 Dr Bourne wrote to the police and told them he intended to perform an abortion on a young woman who had been raped. In the resulting court case Dr Bourne was acquitted and a legal precedent was set that abortions would be legal in certain cases, a position that was enshrined in law in England and Wales with the introduction of the 1967 act. Dr Bourne was tried under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, the one still used here in Northern Ireland.

According to Dr Fiona Bloomer the main reason Northern Ireland lags behind the rest of the UK is because we have a “highly sexist and morally conservative form of cultural politics, religiosity informs education and politics alike” and the narrow focus of sex education is particularly worrying. In a survey conducted of schools, 77% of the respondents said they had asked an organisation called “Love for Life” to come in and talk to the students. Dr Bloomer said this was particularly worrying as Love for Live has very strong anti abortion views and so frames the arguments for many people in a very anti choice way from a young age. The way in which these conversations are framed is very important as Dr Bloomer pointed out, politicians and church leaders discussing abortion and using words like “genocide” and “murder” completely distort the debate.

Dr Bloomer’s point that the denial of access to reproductive healthcare is a violation of women’s rights was echoed by each of the panellists and the audience. That Northern Ireland’s rules on abortion is discrimination against women is a view taken by international human rights bodies including the United Nations Committee on Elimination of Discrimination against Women.

Professor Jim Dornan framed some of his discussion around the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) which are a set of goals internationally agreed to meet the needs of the worlds poorest. Some of these focus on maternal care, infant mortality and gender equality. Professor Dornan argued that providing women with their rights, including access to reproductive healthcare, would actually be the quickest way to achieve these goals.

According to Professor Dornan, abortion is a sign of a failure by society because it signifies that women have not had access to the reproductive healthcare they should have.

A fundamental right for women is the right to access this reproductive healthcare and Kyle Headen, one of the members of the MSFC committee and the presenter of the event reiterated the importance of educating people on this to us afterwards.

Mr Headen told us that “it’s also about the next generation of women knowing what they’re entitled to what they should expect, that they’re not governed by religion, that their government is supposed to be an impartial voice that speaks on their behalf not dictates to them”

Tuesday night was not the beginning of a loud campaign for abortion rights in Northern Ireland, it was not even a debate. Instead, according to Headen, it was something more important. Attracting controversy or press coverage is not the point of MSFC.  Headen himself is quietly, but confidently spoken and the event was much the same. Headen told us “that’s how you make the real changes…by making sure your message is clear, it’s not about being pro abortion; it’s about being pro choice and pro women”. MSFC QUB has only recently been set up but they have high reaching ambitions and aim to make a real change to women’s rights in Northern Ireland. A revolution then, even if it is a quiet one.

MSFC’s next event is an obstetrics emergency night on the 16th December. Check out their Facebook page for more details .

Jason Ashford | Follow Jason on Twitter