Heidi Crowter, anti-abortion campaigner
Do the new regulations permitting abortion in Northern Ireland extend to foetal abnormalties like Down’s syndrome or not? Behind the question is a constitutional argument over whether Westminster had the moral right to enact an abortion law over the heads, even when they were in suspension. But although the DUP and SF seem to be in broad agreement, they seem to be content to win two separate majorities by designation rather than go for an overall simple majority.
BBC NI quotes Westminster sources saying that the UK government remains under a legal duty to implement recommendations made in 2018 by the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). That report said abortions should be allowed in Northern Ireland where there is “severe foetal impairment”, but that provision should not “perpetuate stereotypes” towards disabled people.
What does that mean? That today’s supposedly more enlightened society towards disability should not extend to near full term abortion of the potentially disabled? If so where does that leave the new abortion regulations? As the BBC report states:
No time limit applies in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, where there is a substantial risk that the foetus would die or, if born, would suffer a severe mental or physical impairment. That element of the law has been interpreted by some as meaning terminations could be carried out with no time limit, in cases of Down’s syndrome, cleft palate or club foot.
As the Assembly debates the regulations today, the DUP and SF are vying to be the lead party in forming a simple majority against non fatal foetal abortion and a clear declaration against Westminster’s enactment of abortion regulations over their heads when they were in suspension. If they rely solely on their own designations this won’t happen. If their priority is to win a overall vote by simple majority, they have to vote together. It will be a real test of what they care about more.
The DUP want one kind of clarity, calling for the rejection of “the imposition of abortion legislation which extends to all non-fatal disabilities, including Down’s syndrome” Sinn Féin don’t support the DUP’s motion but their mealy mouthed amendment is a distinction without a difference.
Both parties draw inspiration from the powerful appeal from Heidi Crowter who is Down’s syndrome and is about to get married.
The Northern bishops appear not be rejecting abortion entirely ..
The Bishops make an urgent call “to defend the equal right of children with disabilities to appropriate protection and care both before and after birth, as enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child”.
Finally, the Bishops reiterate their belief that “politicians and all people of good will, who recognise the extreme nature of the Regulations, should not meekly acquiesce to their promulgation”. They call for urgent action, expressing their desire to enter into dialogue with MLAs and reaffirming their willingness to contribute to the formulation of the new Regulations.
The Alliance for Choice group, in condemning the Sinn Féin amendment, said it would “mean people would have to continue to travel for terminations for foetal anomaly diagnoses as they still have to in the 26 counties”
Amnesty International opposes the DUP motion and the Sinn Féin amendment that would support restricting abortion rights. It accuses the medical authorities of dragging their feet.
This motion will change nothing legally but is a clear signal that the DUP wants to roll back the hard-won rights of women and girls.
“Sinn Féin and other parties must not prop up a dangerous anti-choice agenda – instead, they should support human rights and show they’re on the side of women.
“Women and girls are being failed and forgotten – left without vital abortion services, despite regulations coming into force two months ago
Two months since abortion regulations came into force in Northern Ireland on 31 March, the Department of Health has yet to commission any services, meaning women and girls have been left without the vital healthcare beyond the 10 weeks gestation period. It is now more than seven months since abortion was decriminalised in Northern Ireland.
Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic has made it unsafe to travel for an abortion, severely restricting women’s ability to access the service outside Northern Ireland.
Despite the rest of the UK introducing emergency telemedicine that allows women to safely take both abortion pills at home, ensuring women can continue accessing the healthcare during the pandemic, Northern Ireland has not introduced such measures.
As any Assembly vote cannot change the regulations and can do no more than “send a message” , such clarity as is available can only come from medical practitioners and their lawyers. They should state their position without delay.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London