Three Families is available on BBC iplayer

Three Families is available on BBC iplayer   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

Julia Leonard, West London Socialist Party

‘Three Families’ is a two-part series that deals with the issue of access to abortion in Northern Ireland. It is a sensitive portrayal of the problems faced by three individuals who are pregnant and in desperate need of a termination, and the lack of any real choices available to them.

It graphically shows the problems of trying to keep an unwanted pregnancy secret in a small community where entrenched opinions hold sway. However, it does show that attitudes are beginning to change. In the Republic of Ireland, campaigners fought to repeal restrictive anti-abortion laws, and campaigners in Northern Ireland have been fighting for abortion rights.

The programme clearly highlights the hypocrisy of those who say they protect the right to life, while condemning women to horrific suffering. A young girl has been in an abusive relationship, and her partner says if she goes ahead with the pregnancy he will “kick the baby out of her”, and tell everyone she is a slag. Another woman goes through a full-term pregnancy knowing her baby has no chance of survival, and is in such agony throughout that she has to take morphine to dull her pain.

The third woman has such severe mental health problems that she is at serious risk, and is physically unable to make the journey to England for a termination, although she could afford to do so. Her baby dies, and she still has to wait days to be admitted to hospital and induced.

Three Families shows the ridiculous situation where the mother of the young girl is charged with procuring abortion pills under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act. She did this in order to protect her vulnerable young daughter, and to ensure she could go on to university.

It is an excellent and thought-provoking portrayal of the misery that women are forced to endure. Many women seeking to terminate a pregnancy have been forced into the hands of illegal unsafe abortionists, or to travel to countries where abortion is easier to access.

However, by concentrating only on very extreme cases – a young underage girl in an abusive relationship, and two women whose babies were unable to survive after being born – it does not fully support the argument of a woman’s right to choose.

In two of the cases an abortion should have been possible, even under the very restricted laws – fatal foetal abnormality and severe threat to mental health – but the women were faced with doctors misinterpreting the rules, and refusing to help them.

In 2017, the Northern Ireland Assembly collapsed. With no government in Northern Ireland, the Westminster government imposed legislation to legalise abortion up to 12 weeks.

This is being resisted by some assembly members. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has just elected a new leader, Edwin Poots, who is on the religious fundamentalist wing of the party.

Note of caution

The programme shows the jubilation of women who have campaigned for a change in the law, in one case for over 50 years. But the closing credits sound a note of caution.

Termination is only legal for up to 12 weeks gestation. And the new law faces strong opposition.

A year after its introduction, the Northern Ireland Department of Health acknowledged the legality of abortions, but said that it was not required to commission the relevant services! Without well-funded, easy-to-access services, the new legislation will be of no use to women seeking an abortion.

In many cases, nothing has changed. Women face the prospect of travel out of Northern Ireland, and paying the high cost of treatment, plus the additional cost of travel and accommodation.

Three Families ends on quite a downbeat note, and does not highlight the continuing struggles that campaigners are involved in to secure change.

It must be the right of all women to choose when and whether to have children. This means free access to contraception, abortion, fertility services and sex education. If women decide to have children, they should have access to good quality free childcare, and all the local services required to give those children a good start in life.

  • Three Families is available on BBC iPlayer