Last week, the NI Assembly voted to reject the imposition, in Northern Ireland, of abortion legislation by the British government, which extends to all non-fatal disabilities including Down syndrome.
What the British government should do now is repeal the law which was forced through parliament last year using an emergency procedure designed to deal with things like terrorism. Then it should allow the NI Assembly to deal with this matter. This was not a matter for the British government, it was always a matter for the NI Assembly. That Assembly has been sitting now for over five months, and it has indicated its views on what is being done at Westminster by the vote on June 2. It rejects it.
The legisation which the British government has introduced was drafted in secrecy – there was no discussion with Northern Ireland MLAs, MPs or peers. Nobody knew what was in the regulations. I and others asked the NIO minister for a meeting to find out what was going on, before the regulations were tabled, and eventually had a telephone meeting on March 19, six days before they were introduced in parliament. At that stage we still didn’t know what was in the new law. We had also been unable to get information on how the people of Northern Ireland had responded to the NIO consultation about the detail of the new law.
At that meeting on March 19, we were again refused access to the regulations. The NIO minister, his private secretary and a member of staff of the NIO all had the regulations in front of them, but refused to share them, even during the meeting, which made it difficult to have a coherent conversation. The minister did tell us that during the NIO consultation the majority of people had said that they did not want these regulations, but, he said, this was not what the consultation was about.
In the course of the meeting we learned that abortion would be available on demand up to 12 weeks, and up to 24 weeks if termination presents less of a risk to the health of the mother than the continuation of the pregnancy. In assessing this there is no requirement that the mother has a specific mental health or physical condition, and the minister said, it would be a matter to be decided by the mother and her doctor who can take into account the “wider social context”. This means that we have abortion effectively on demand up to 24 weeks for any reason, so that if the baby is a little girl and the parents would prefer a little boy, they can abort the little girl.
Finally, we were told, abortion would be available to birth if the baby has “a severe foetal impairment or a fatal foetal abnormality”. When asked whether there was a definition of “severe foetal impairment” or fatal foetal abnormality the minister said that there was not. He declined to answer when drawn about whether Down syndrome, a club foot or a cleft palate constituted severe foetal impairment, saying that the doctor and mother would have to consider the level of disability which would be present. He said that the wording was clear and it applied to severe cases.
Normally when law is being made there is consultation, impact assessment, consideration of the draft legislation, the opportunity to amend the new law – none of this has happened. None of this can happen. These regulations, which none of our elected representatives had seen, are a package. Parliament is being asked to approve them in the coming weeks. It has a stark choice – either it approves the regulations as a whole or it rejects them.
We now know, because the British government has finally disclosed the fact, that 79% of respondents to the NIO consultation rejected the government’s proposals for the new laws. I have had no explanation as to why this fact was not made known, why the wording of the new law was not made available for discussion and consideration or why we were not allowed to see it until it was laid in Parliament.
The minister is wrong. He does not have to get these regulations through parliament”
Now the Northern Ireland Assembly has voted to reject the imposition of the new law.
They had two votes and altogether 75 of our 90 MLAs rejected the provisions for abortion to birth in cases of non-fatal disabilities including Down syndrome.
The NI Attorney General, the chief legal adviser to the NI Executive has advised that in producing these regulations the NIO minister has gone beyond the powers available him. The NIO minister could only make any law which the NI Assembly could make. The NI Assembly can only make laws which are compliant with the NI Act and European law obligations, among which are the obligation not to discriminate on grounds of disability or in the protection of rights of conscience.
The NIO minister has produced regulations which discriminate against unborn babies on the grounds of disability, since babies without a disability are protected from abortion from 24 weeks of gestation, but babies with a disability can be aborted up to birth.
The new law also discriminates against medical practitioners and others who have a genuine conscientious objection to being involved in abortion, as protection is available only to those who actually participate in the act of abortion. This means that nurse managers who have to organise theatre staffing rotas or pharmacists, for example, are not protected. As Lord Mackay, a former Lord Chancellor of Britain said in parliament last year: “It is not necessary or right to force people to do things that they hold to be wrong.”
These new laws have been the subject of serious and significant criticism by MPs and peers from NI and other parts of the UK, by a Parliamentary Select Committee, and by a large number of people including eminent QCs and Church leaders in Northern Ireland. The Assembly has voted to reject them. Tens of thousands of our people have marched, protested, written to the British prime minister saying they do not want these laws.
Despite all this the British government is determined to force them upon the people of Northern Ireland against their will. Last week in parliament the NIO minister said he had to do this because the law required regulations to be passed. The law does require regulations. It specifies limited grounds upon which abortion should be introduced. It does not require abortion on demand. It does not require abortion to birth when a baby has a foetal abnormality. Yet that is what the NIO minister has legislated for.
The minister is wrong. He does not have to get these regulations through Parliament. 79% of the people rejected these laws when they were proposed in the NIO Consultation. The NI Assembly voted to reject them last week.
It is time for Parliament to listen with respect to the NI Assembly, to NI’s politicians sitting in Westminster, to our Church leaders across the community, and to all the people who have called for the rejection of these regulations.