Health professionals in Northern Ireland are writing to the region’s secretary to protest a liberalization of the region’s abortion laws, which the UK parliament is set to impose on Northern Ireland this month unless Northern Ireland’s parliament reconvenes.
According to the Impartial Reporter, over 800 health professionals in Northern Ireland have written to the Secretary of State expressing concern and opposition to the potential legal change.
“As a Christian my faith in God also plays a major part of my belief in the sanctity of life,” a midwife from County Fermanagh told the Impartial Reporter.
“[God’s] word says we are 'fearfully and wonderfully made’ and it is my personal conviction that the miracle of life is given by God. But I want to make the point that many midwives who are part of the 'Midwives for Both Lives' Facebook group are of non-faith backgrounds and still they believe in protecting the life of the unborn child,” she said.
The British parliament voted in July to add same-sex marriage and a loosening of abortion restrictions as amendments to the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill, which is designed to keep the region running amid a protracted deadlock in the Northern Ireland Assembly.
The Northern Ireland Catholic bishops’ conference has condemned the legislation’s “unprecedented” use of authority to legalize abortion in the region.
The Assembly has been suspended for the past two years due to a dispute between the two major governing parties. The Democratic Unionist Party, the largest, is opposed to changing the law. Sinn Féin, another prominent party in Northern Ireland, backs a liberalization of the abortion law.
If Northern Ireland Assembly is not reconvened by Oct. 21, the expansion of abortion rights and the legalization of same-sex marriage will take effect. Secretary Julian Smith would be mandated to put the laws into effect by March 31, 2020.
The UK government on Tuesday morning published guidelines for health professionals for when the abortion law tentatively goes into effect. The guidelines state that between Oct. 22, 2019 and March 31, 2020, no criminal charges can be brought against those who have an abortion, or against health care professionals who perform and assist in an abortion.
The health professionals’ letter of concern also lamented a lack of conscience protections in the bill for medical personnel who object to participating in abortions. The new guidelines instruct those health professionals with a conscientious objection to direct women to information about where to obtain an abortion elsewhere.
The guidelines go on to say that health professionals may object to participating “hands-on” in an abortion, but this does not include the “ancillary, administrative and managerial tasks” related to the procedure.
“You must not express your personal beliefs (including political, religious and moral beliefs) to patients in ways that exploit their vulnerability or are likely to cause them distress,” the guidelines state.
Last year, the Republic of Ireland held a referendum in which voters repealed the country’s pro-life protections, which had recognized the life of both mothers and their babies. Irish legislators then enacted legislation allowing legal abortion in what had long been a Catholic and pro-life stronghold.
Elective abortion is legal in the rest of the United Kingdom up to 24 weeks, while currently it is legally permitted in Northern Ireland only if the mother's life is at risk or if there is risk of permanent, serious damage to her mental or physical health.
Northern Irish women have been able to procure free National Health Service abortions in England, Scotland, and Wales since November 2017.
Leaders of the Catholic Church, the Church of Ireland, Methodist Church in Ireland, Presbyterian Church in Ireland, and the Irish Council of Churches, have called on their congregations to lobby their locally elected representatives, and ask them to reconvene the assembly before the deadline.
“We are, along with others, gravely concerned that the imposition of this Westminster legislation,” the leaders wrote, calling for two special days of prayer over the weekend of October 12-13 for the unborn and for women facing difficult pregnancies and their families.
The religious leaders also objected that the people of Northern Ireland were not consulted about the measure, and there is no evidence that it reflects the will of the citizens.
Arlene Foster, the leader of the DUP, has reiterated her party’s stance in its opposition to abortion, and she called for the restoration of the devolved government in the region.