Catholic bishops said on Tuesday that the British government’s direction to make abortion services available in Northern Ireland by March 2022 is “gravely disquieting.”

In a statement issued on July 27, the bishops lamented the move by Brandon Lewis, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

Lewis issued a formal direction on July 22 requiring the Northern Ireland Executive and Department of Health to introduce full abortion services in the region by March 31, 2022.

The bishops said the step was the latest in a series of decisions by the British government, based in Westminster, London, that threatened “the fragile balance of relationships at the heart of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement,” which ended the 30-year conflict known as The Troubles.

“Sadly, some of our local political parties seem content to welcome this unilateral move by Westminster on an issue which is of fundamental importance to local voters, while rightly challenging such unilateral impositions on other issues,” said the bishops, who included the Primate of All-Ireland, Archbishop Eamon Martin.

They continued: “In unilaterally imposing this direction on the local Northern Ireland Assembly to provide abortion services, it is as if the Westminster government, and those local parties who have supported them, believe the answer to the issue of providing compassionate care for a woman and her unborn child in pregnancy can be framed simply and exclusively as a ‘healthcare issue.’”

“Absent from the discussion however are the thousands of unborn children, who have no legal protection and whose humanity is excluded from the political equation. It is for this reason that the argument for the protection of all human life can never be abandoned or referred to human rights experts alone.”

“Westminster has imposed an unjust law. Christians, and all people of goodwill, can never stand silently by and fail to raise their voices at any attempt to ignore completely the fact that unborn children are human beings worthy of protection.”

Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, but abortion law is considered to be a devolved issue under the control of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

But due to the suspension of the regional government, the British parliament decriminalized abortion in Northern Ireland in October 2019 and obliged the U.K. government to create legal access to abortion in the region.

Before March 31, 2020, abortion was legally permitted in Northern Ireland only if the mother’s life was imperiled or if there was a risk of long-term or permanent, serious damage to mental or physical health.

Northern Ireland’s abortion law now allows elective abortions up to 12 weeks of pregnancy. Abortions up to 24 weeks are legal when the mother’s physical or mental health is determined to be at risk. Abortions up to the point of birth are legal in cases of severe fetal impairment or fetal abnormality.

In March 2021, the U.K. government signaled its intention to unveil new regulations enabling Lewis to direct the Northern Ireland Department of Health to commission more widespread abortion services -- prompting criticism from the bishops.

Officials set out the measures in a statutory instrument -- a form of secondary legislation allowing government ministers to legislate on day-to-day matters -- known as the Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2021.

Although Northern Ireland’s Department of Health has not commissioned services centrally, health trusts are offering abortions.

According to the Department of Health, 1,556 abortions have taken place in Northern Ireland, which has a 1.9 million population, since the law changed in March 2020.

The bishops’ latest statement was issued in the name of Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh, Bishop Noel Treanor of Down and Connor, Bishop Donal McKeown of Derry, Bishop Larry Duffy of Clogher, and Armagh auxiliary Bishop Michael Router.

The bishops noted that Northern Ireland Assembly elections are due to take place by May 5, 2022.

“As our society prepares in coming months to engage in the ultimate expression of democratic participation -- the election to our local Assembly -- we encourage all Catholics, and those share our view on the inviolability of all human life, to reflect carefully on the issues raised by this succession of unilateral impositions by the Westminster government,” they wrote.

“We encourage everyone who believes in the equal right to life and compassionate care for a mother and her unborn child to ask local candidates and political parties to explain their position on these interventions and on this most fundamental of all issues.”