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NI Assembly passes motion rejecting abortion regulations

By Sarah Mac Donald - 03 June, 2020

A motion opposing Northern Ireland’s new abortion regulations, which were enacted by Westminster, was passed by the Stormont Assembly on Tuesday evening.

The DUP motion was carried by 46 votes to 40.

It was tabled in response to issues highlighted by Heidi Crowter, the 24-year-old disability campaigner with Down’s syndrome. She is opposed to the British Government backed proposal to permit abortion up to birth in cases of disabilities like Down’s syndrome in Northern Ireland.

Tuesday’s vote by the NI Assembly will not directly change the new law on abortion in Northern Ireland. But according to DUP leader, Arlene Foster, it sends a very strong message to MPs and peers at Westminster that Northern Ireland, through its elected representatives, rejects the regulations being imposed on it.

Following the collapse of Stormont in January 2017, Westminster liberalised Northern Ireland’s abortion laws in the absence of an Executive.

Last July, MPs at Westminster passed legislation requiring the British government to liberalise abortion in Northern Ireland if devolution was not restored by 21 October. When that deadline passed and the Assembly was still suspended, abortion was decriminalised by Westminster in October 2019.

Stormont was finally recalled in January this year.

A more liberal abortion regime than that in the rest of the UK was introduced in Northern Ireland on 31 March, allowing for abortion on demand up to 12 weeks and abortion up to birth in the case of fatal foetal abnormality and other disabilities.

This was despite the fact that some 79% of people in Northern Ireland who responded to a consultation conducted by the UK Government last December expressed a preference for regulations that protect the life of the unborn child.

Recently, Northern Ireland’s attorney general John Larkin said the Northern Secretary Brandon Lewis exceeded his powers in introducing these new abortion regulations.

In written evidence to a House of Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, Stormont’s chief legal adviser indicated that the legislation may not give adequate weight to the European Convention on Human Rights’ protection of the rights of those opposed to abortion on religious or philosophical grounds.

Responding to Tuesday’s vote, the Pro Life Campaign warmly welcomed the Northern Ireland Assembly’s rejection of the abortion regulations.

A spokesperson for the Pro Life Campaign said, “The result shows what can happen when the political establishment doesn’t censor debate and allows the pro-life side to get a fair hearing. The heart-breaking personal testimonies of women who regret their abortions and the intervention of people like disability rights campaigner Heidi Crowter all helped influence the outcome.”

The PLC spokesperson said that following the vote, “Westminster cannot justifiably continue to try and impose abortion on Northern Ireland. It is clear from the 46:40 vote that this devolved issue should be decided by Northern Ireland’s elected representatives and not the UK parliament.”

On Monday, the Bishops of Northern Ireland reissued their call to MLAs to oppose the new abortion regulations introduced by the Westminster Parliament, in advance of the Assembly debate on Tuesday.

Describing the Westminster regulations as “an unjust law, which was imposed without the consent of the people of Northern Ireland”, the bishops urged the politicians “to take steps to formulate new Regulations that will reflect more fully the will of a significant majority of the people in this jurisdiction to protect the lives of mothers and their unborn children.”

With the motion in the Assembly specifically calling on MLAs to reject “the imposition of abortion legislation which extends to all non-fatal disabilities, including Down’s syndrome”, the bishops expressed concern about the “extreme nature” of the Westminster regulations and called on them to defend the equal right of children with disabilities to appropriate protection and care both before and after birth, as enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

In a series of messages on social media on Monday, the leader of the Irish Church, Archbishop Eamon Martin, called on people in Northern Ireland to contact their MLAs in advance of the vote, asking them to support the DUP motion.

Thanking those politicians who had brought the motion forward, Archbishop Martin described the Westminster regulations imposed on Northern Ireland as “unjust, extreme and inhumane”.

He warned that “they go much further than 1967 Abortion Act – imagine taking the life of an unborn child because the child has a cleft lip!”

Dr Martin added, “These regulations offer no gestational limits for children with disabilities. Let’s take a stand for the equal right to life and care for all children, before and after birth, as well as their mothers.”

Reacting to the passing of the DUP motion by the NI Assembly, a spokesperson for Right to Life UK, Catherine Robinson said, “Tonight’s vote has made it clear that the UK Government must urgently hand back this devolved matter to the elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland at the Assembly.”

She said the UK Government and Westminster now have “absolutely no mandate whatsoever to impose these extreme regulations on Northern Ireland. 79% of respondents to the Government consultation on these regulations were opposed to any abortion provision in Northern Ireland beyond what was previously permitted.”

Ms Robinson also highlighted that polling in Northern Ireland showed that the majority of Sinn Féin and DUP voters want their country’s new abortion framework to only allow abortions when the mother’s life is at risk.

“Only 5% of all voters support introducing abortion through to 24 weeks, which is in line with what the Government will be introducing to Northern Ireland. This polling shows a clear rejection from the people of Northern Ireland for the UK Government’s regulations. If the devolution settlement of Stormont is to be respected, the cross-community view against this extreme abortion framework must be respected.”

She also stressed that with Stormont having been restored for over five months, “it is vital that the people of Northern Ireland have a say on their country’s new abortion framework through their elected representatives in the Northern Irish Assembly. It’s time to end this blatant undermining of devolution and hand back control on this devolved issue to Northern Ireland.”

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