29th July, 2015

Dr Audrey Simpson joined FPA as Northern Ireland Director in 1988.

Audrey SimpsonPrior to that she carried out postgraduate research at the University of Ulster into the theory and practice of sex education in post-primary schools in Northern Ireland.

In 2005 Audrey was awarded the OBE for services to health in Northern Ireland. From October 2012 to April 2015 she was acting Chief Executive of FPA and she retired at the end of June 2015.

We asked Audrey to reflect on her time at FPA, outline developments in sexual health awareness and campaigning, and to describe her hopes and fears going forward.

"Women are now so much more informed about their sexual and reproductive health. When I started the level of ignorance about, for example, how your body works was startling.

We used to run community-based information sessions for women’s groups and they literally emptied their purses to buy books which would give them more information.


"This was also at the height of the Troubles and, significantly, women’s needs were exactly the same regardless of which side of the religious divide they lived.

"In Northern Ireland, emergency contraception was controversial, often wrongly paraded as a means of abortion and our helpline regularly received calls from women who had been refused it by their GP or pharmacist. This very rarely happens now so that battle is well and truly won."


Project work

"In the mid-1990s we started the first ever community-based sexual health personal development programme for young men, called ‘Bout Ye. For the first six months we met tremendous resistance from professionals and youth and community workers who insisted that young men wouldn’t do personal development work as they were only interested in 'playing football and darts'. That myth was gradually dispelled.

"Speakeasy, our course which helps parents and carers to speak to their children about relationships and sexual health, was developed in Northern Ireland and gradually extended to the rest of the UK and internationally. Working with parents is now the norm.

There is still some way to go to achieve equality of access to information and services but the genie is now well and truly out of the bottle."


Abortion rights

"Abortion rights in Northern Ireland is no longer as taboo a subject. The law has been, and continues to be, challenged through the courts; human rights bodies such as Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and Amnesty International, are now fully engaged, public opinion has changed, media are broadly supportive in as far as they can be, and most important of all women who have been refused an abortion in Northern Ireland are now speaking out.

I use the analogy of the Berlin Wall to explain abortion rights in Northern Ireland. Unlike the Berlin Wall, change will not occur overnight but the bricks are gradually crumbling."


Hopes for the future

"My biggest hope is that my fears are not realised. I fear that complacency could lead to sexual health going backwards. Terrorism and the ongoing economic challenges could mean that sexual health slips off the political agenda and/or is an easy target for cuts.

"We have to shout loudly and often that we are all sexual beings and therefore sexual health is crucial to the overall health and wellbeing of society, and ultimately to the economy.


"The momentum we have achieved in improving the sexual health of the population must not diminish and we must protect what we have achieved and continue to campaign accordingly.

"And finally I hope that clinicians in Northern Ireland will follow the example set by colleagues in virtually all countries across the world and become involved in abortion rights.

"To date their silence has been deafening and of course it is easier to be silent rather than face controversy. But they witness at first hand the misery women in Northern Ireland experience when refused an abortion, so it’s time they publicly condemned that injustice."


Sexual health