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Ever since the Republic of Ireland voted to repeal the 8th amendment to its Constitution, thus introducing abortion to Ireland, pro-choice campaigners have focused intensely on Northern Ireland, where abortion is still only available if the mother’s life is at risk.
According to some, our laws are “draconian,” “narrow,” “old-fashioned,” “obsolete,” and even an abuse of human rights. Activists have been hard at work to undermine the law on abortion in Northern Ireland and have found ready allies among MPs at Westminster.
Christian Action Research & Education (CARE) in Northern Ireland, where I work as a policy officer, is alarmed by the latest results of that alliance, particularly as it affects the pro-life cause and democracy itself. It’s vital that people concerned about either or both, inside and outside of Northern Ireland, understand what’s going on.
Unlike the Republic, Northern Ireland has remained part of the United Kingdom since partition of the island in 1921. Still, thanks to a devolution of powers, NI has had its own legislative assembly since 1998. Power-sharing was the means to bring about a form of stability in a part of the UK. famous for division and discord along sectarian lines. Our MLAs have been able to vote on various issues that fall under the legislative assembly’s remit – including abortion.
The reality of abortion being a “devolved” matter under the power-sharing agreement explains why NI’s abortion law is different from the rest of the UK. Devolution has allowed us to reflect our own thinking on this issue, rather than simply following the rest of the UK. In Great Britain, the 1967 Abortion Act means abortion is legal up to 24 weeks, so long as two doctors sign it off. There are five possible grounds for an abortion and in cases of predicted disability; abortion is available right up until birth.
By sharp contrast, in NI, the Assembly voted not to accept the 1967 Abortion Act. Therefore, abortion is limited to exceptional circumstances when the mother’s life is deemed to be at serious risk. So, abortion can and does happen in NI, but only as a necessary evil. It is not allowed in any other situation. A woman in NI cannot abort her baby for “social reasons” which is the most common reason given for abortions in the rest of the UK.
Far from being “draconian,” or an abuse of human rights, NI’s life-affirming law has helped save lives. Both Lives Matter is an NI-based campaign group with a powerful message that abortion is not in the best interests of either the mother or the baby. They conducted robust research and found that, because the 1967 Abortion Act was never adopted, 100,000 are people alive today in NI who otherwise would not be. The figure was contested but the Advertising Standards Authority checked it and vindicated the research.
But now, thanks to MPs across the sea in Westminster, NI could soon go from having an abortion law that saves lives to the most radical abortion regime in any part of the UK. The reason is that for more than two years, since January 9, 2017, the NI Assembly has not been sitting. The delicate power-sharing arrangement between the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin broke down. Despite on-going negotiations and endless meetings, it has not been possible to bring devolution back.
In this context, a small minority of MPs began saying that Westminster had a duty to act. The absence of the Assembly was seen as the perfect pretext for MPs to unilaterally impose abortion law change on NI. Throughout this debate, there has been a massive over-reliance on a report by the UN Committee for the Elimination of Violence against Women (CEDAW). This report recommends repealing sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Persons Act (1861), which would result in widespread abortion access in Northern Ireland.
What pro-choice campaigners and MPs don’t say is that the report, which they so love to quote, lacks any judicial standing and was produced by an unelected UN subcommittee.
Two weeks ago, the Northern Ireland Executive Formation Bill had its first reading in the House of Commons. The purpose of the bill was to extend the period for negotiating the return of the NI Assembly. Initially, the legislation had a very limited scope. Through amendments, however, it grew to include things as far from its original intentions as Brexit, gay marriage, and abortion. While CARE NI cares about all those issues a part of its mission to research and education from a Christian perspective, our immediate concern is about the forced choice of abortion that we’re facing.
It should have been impossible to amend the Executive Formation Bill to change NI’s abortion law. Yet that is precisely what has happened. The Speaker of the House of Commons selected dangerous amendments to liberalise NI’s abortion law. MPs then voted 332 to 99 for one amendment that carries the potential to impose extreme abortion law on NI. Strikingly, all of the MPs who actually represent NI constituencies voted against the amendment.
We need to be clear about what has happened here. MPs who do not represent Northern Ireland constituencies have voted to impose radical abortion law change on NI, without any consultation of the people. Our MLAs have had no say, though as recently as 2016, they considered the issue of abortion during a debate and vote at the Assembly. A clear majority rejected the chance to liberalise NI’s abortion law.
Devolution has been significantly undermined by the action of MPs at Westminster. There is no strong public appetite here in NI for Westminster to go about changing the law in this way.
The ramifications of what has happened at Westminster in terms of devolution will be bad enough. But even worse, the consequences for babies and for women will be tragic. In this context, our message remains unchanged: both lives matter.
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