Northern Ireland’s proposed abortion law drew strong objections from pro-life advocates who said it removes almost all legal protection for unborn babies.
They added that it drops many safeguards provided in other parts of the U.K., allows non-doctors to perform abortions, and allows abortion of disabled babies as far as birth.
“Because of the pro-life laws previously enshrined in law in Northern Ireland, babies in the womb were given legal protection and progressive, compassionate care which we could be proud of,” Bernadette Smyth, director of Precious Life, said Nov. 5. “Against the democratic will of the electorate, who had persistently elected pro-life politicians, and against the principles of devolution, all meaningful legal protection for unborn babies and pregnant women has now been stripped away.”
Under the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019, passed in July by the British Parliament, the government is obliged to create legal access to abortion in the region by March 31, 2020. The legislation legalizing abortion took effect in part because the Northern Ireland Assembly, which has been suspended nearly three years due to a dispute between the two major governing parties, was not able to convene for business by Oct. 21.
The amendment to the NI EF Act obliging the government to provide for legal abortion in Northern Ireland was introduced by Stella Creasy, a Labour MP who represents a London constituency. The legislation has drawn some objections that it violates the letter or spirit of devolution agreements that grant the Northern Ireland Assembly power over important matters.
“The people of Northern Ireland have not given license nor approval to the new devastating abortion regime which will now be foisted upon them by a British Government which does not represent them,” Smyth said. “This proposed framework is a shocking and unconcealed attempt to further undermine the will of the people of Northern Ireland.”
The government proposes that abortion be available unconditionally up to 12 or 14 weeks gestation. In cases of fetal abnormality, the government is proposing that abortion without time limit be available. It also proposes that abortion without time limit be allowed where there is risk to the life of the mother or it is necessary to prevent grave permanent injury to her physical or mental health.
Previously, abortion was legally permitted in the region 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.
Smyth said the proposed framework goes “far beyond the requirements” of parliament’s legislation. In her view, it “removes virtually all meaningful legal protections for babies in the womb, and drops many of the legal safeguards provided by the 1967 Abortion Act in England and Wales.”
She warned of its effects on unborn babies with disabilities.
“The proposal would also mean the legalization of abortion for disabilities, including club foot, cleft lip, anencephaly and Down’s syndrome amongst other conditions, likely available right up to the moment of birth,” she said.
As a whole, Smyth said, “these proposals open the door wide to serious endangerment of women’s health and safety by opening abortion provision up to any healthcare professional, which could include nurses, midwives, pharmacists, healthcare assistants, art therapists and dieticians.”
“The framework further seriously jeopardizes the health and safety of women in Northern Ireland as it removes the requirement that two medical doctors sign off on an abortion,” she argued. “The proposal does not include a legal limit on the locations where abortions can take place, potentially permitting dangerous home use of both abortion pills along with abortion provision in school nurse clinics, (general practitioners’) surgeries, mobile abortion clinics and pharmacies.”
The government proposes that a medical practitioner or any other registered healthcare professional be able to provide abortions, provided they are appropriately trained and competent to provide treatment in accordance with their professional body’s requirements and guidelines.
Abortions past 22 or 24 weeks should be provided in hospitals, the government says.
While in England, Wales, and Scotland two doctors must certify that there were lawful grounds for abortion, the government is considering whether only one doctor’s certification should be required in Northern Ireland. It cited the likelihood of “a more significant number of people raising conscientious objections than in other parts of the U.K.”
The government proposal allows conscientious objection only for direct participation in abortion, but not “associated ancillary, administrative or managerial tasks.” This is the standard exception in other parts of the U.K.
The government’s proposed legislative framework is informed by a UN report based on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. The NI EF Act requires that the government implement the report’s recommendations.
The government consultation will close Dec. 16. It includes 15 questions regarding the details of how legal abortion provision should be made in Northern Ireland.
The government intends to published its response to the consultation and details of the action it will take within 12 weeks after Dec. 16.
The NI EF Act act also provides that since Oct. 22, abortion has been decriminalized in Northern Ireland, and a moratorium has been placed on abortion-related criminal prosecutions. Since Oct. 22, the abortion of a child capable of being born alive, except when the purpose is to preserve the life of the mother, remains unlawful.
Bills to legalize abortion in cases of fatal fetal abnormality, rape, or incest failed in the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2016.
In October, the High Court in Belfast had ruled that the region's ban on the abortion of unborn children with fatal abnormalities violated the U.K.’s human rights commitments.
The women of Northern Ireland have been able to procure free National Health Service abortions in England, Scotland, and Wales since November 2017.
The Republic of Ireland legalized abortion by a vote of 66 to 33 percent in a 2018 referendum that removed the pro-life plank from its constitution.