The Northern Ireland Assembly voted in favor Tuesday of a bill which would restrict abortions on the basis of non-fatal disability.
The Severe Fetal Impairment Abortion (Amendment) Bill passed 48 to 12 at its second reading, and will now to move to the next stage of debate.
Introduced in January by Paul Givan, a member of the Democratic Unionist Party, the bill would remove “severe fetal impairment” as an exception to the country’s abortion laws.
Presently, Northern Ireland’s abortion law, which went into effect almost one year ago, 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 until the point of birth are legal in cases of severe fetal impairment or fetal abnormality.
Under the current statute, an unborn child who has been diagnosed with a condition such as Down syndrome or cleft palate can be aborted past the 24-week legal limit.
Disability rights campaigners -- including the group Don't Screen Us Out and Heidi Crowter, an Irish woman with Down syndrome -- have welcomed the bill, calling the current law “downright discrimination” toward people with disabilities.
Bishops in Northern Ireland have also strongly backed the proposal.
Givan’s bill would still permit late-term abortions in cases of fatal fetal abormality.
“The current law tells those with disabilities that they are worth less than other people, their contribution is less valuable, their lives less important, less full,” Givan said in a statement.
“The idea that Down’s syndrome is some huge problem that should be addressed by abortion is chilling,” he said. “You don’t have to look far to see the full lives those with disabilities lead; they enrich our communities and families.”
Speaking on Good Morning Ulster, Givan said that his bill is “an opportunity for people to come together and fight a prejudicial, discriminatory piece of legislation,” referring to the existing abortion law.
Laws such as the Disability Act of 1995 have provided “support” for “people with disabilities,” he said - support which should be extended to the unborn.
“I believe that those rights - and these are human rights - ought to be conferred upon people before they are born and that is what this campaign is going to be about,” he said.
Abortion became legal in Northern Ireland in April, 2020, after the British parliament imposed changes to the region’s abortion and marriage laws and the local devolved legislature failed to block the changes.
Before March 31, abortion was legally permitted in Northern Ireland only if the mother's life was at risk or if there was risk of long term or permanent, serious damage to her mental or physical health. The region was not included in the United Kingdom’s Abortion Act of 1967, which legalized abortion.