At CARE in Northern Ireland, we believe that human life begins at conception and all human life, being made in the image of God, should be afforded protection and dignity. With this in mind, we wholeheartedly believe that abortion is neither in the best interest of the mother nor the unborn child. The law on abortion in Northern Ireland offers protection for both parties. Unlike the rest of the UK, Northern Ireland chose not to adopt the Abortion Act 1967. Instead, a combination of statute and judicial case law renders all abortion unlawful except where necessary to save the mother’s life. This defence applies where there is a real and serious, permanent or long-term, risk to the physical and mental health of the mother. As the recent Both Lives Matter report has demonstrated, at least 100,000 people are alive in Northern Ireland today who would be dead if the 1967 Act applied to our province. CARE believes that the Northern Ireland law is both progressive and humane. Far from being watered down it should be promoted as an international model of best practice for other countries to emulate.
CARE has provided the secretariat of the All Party Group on Human Life since the end of 2015 which considers the issue of abortion as part of its remit.
During the 2011-2016 Assembly, and the recent short Assembly term, we have faced two main challenges:
- Challenges to the Law
In October 2014, the Department of Justice launched a public consultation on changing the current law on abortion. It focused on the creation of legal exceptions in cases of “fatal foetal abnormality”, rape and incest as well as the provision of a possible conscientious objection for doctors should these exceptions be introduced. It should be stressed that we at CARE do not believe the use of the phrase of “fatal foetal abnormality” is appropriate as the term has no medical or legal definition. Indeed, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in Northern Ireland has been critical of the use of this term and indicated the correct terminology should be “life-limiting condition.” 25,000 people engaged with the consultation, with 77% of formal submissions coming out against the proposed changes.[i] Despite the overwhelming response to the public consultation opposing the proposed changes, the then Justice Minister, David Ford sought to go ahead with a Bill to amend the law on abortion. The Justice Minister however indicated that he would only seek to amend the law with regard to “fatal foetal abnormality” and not to try and introduce a change allowing for abortion on the grounds of rape or incest. This legislation did not come forward in the 2011-2016 Assembly term.
The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission felt that the Department of Justice’s consultation on abortion law reform did not go far enough and in June 2015, through judicial review, asked the courts to rule on whether the law on abortion in Northern Ireland was compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. In November 2015, Justice Horner sitting at the High Court delivered a judgement which declared that the law on abortion in Northern Ireland is incompatible with the European Convention of Human Rights on the grounds that it does not allow for abortion in cases of life-limiting conditions, rape and incest. The Attorney General for Northern Ireland, John Larkin QC and the Department of Justice appealed the judgement and we still at the current time await the judgement. The Department of Justice appealed the ruling with regard to the issue of rape and incest.
In and of itself, the court’s ruling does not change the law on abortion in Northern Ireland. The Assembly remains responsible for legislation on abortion and can choose whether to change the law or to retain the legislation as it stands. We at CARE in Northern Ireland, while understanding the sensitivities related to abortion on the grounds of life-limiting conditions, rape and incest, do not believe that a change in the law is the best way forward.[ii] We are of the view that abortion is not the answer in these very difficult cases and that the High Court has also over-stepped the mark in ruling as it has. We remain of the view that the Northern Ireland Assembly is the right place for abortion policy to be debated and determined.
In February 2016, a number of amendments were put forward by Stewart Dickson MLA, Trevor Lunn MLA, Anna Lo MLA, Basil McCrea MLA and Stephen Agnew MLA to liberalise the law on abortion in Northern Ireland by allowing for abortion on the grounds of “fatal foetal abnormality” and sexual crime. The amendments considered the hardest of the hard cases and were thankfully dealt with by Assembly Members with enormous sensitivity. The Northern Ireland Assembly rejected all of the amendments by substantial majorities in light of how they had been tabled at a late stage of a Justice Bill.
In the recent short lived Assembly term David Ford MLA sought to introduce a private members bill to allow for abortion in cases of “fatal foetal abnormality.”[iii] The content of the Bill was very similar to the amendments put forward by Trevor Lunn MLA and Stewart Dickson MLA in the previous Assembly term. This Bill fell when the Assembly collapsed. However, it is highly likely that if the Northern Ireland Assembly is re-established that a similar Bill will be re-introduced. In addition, an “expert working group on abortion and fatal fetal abnormality” was formed by the Department of Health and the Department of Justice following the 2016 Assembly election. This group produced a report which was with Executive ministers at the time the Assembly collapsed. This report will no doubt prove influential if the Assembly is reformed. Although the so called “fatal fetal abnormalities” (life limiting conditions) present difficult cases, the truth is that amending the law to address them is likely to open the door for abortion more generally. In Great Britain, for example, where abortion is permitted for serious disability, the abortion of babies with club foot and cleft palette is not uncommon. Moreover, it is crucial to understand that in those cases where sadly children do not live long after birth, experience demonstrates that the families really appreciate the precious hours and sometimes days or weeks spent together. There are also cases of parents deeply regretting seeking an abortion and losing this opportunity.
- Marie Stopes: should private providers be able to offer abortions in Northern Ireland
In October 2012 Marie Stopes International, one of the world’s biggest abortion providers, opened a clinic in Belfast.[iv] This was a hugely concerning development for many in the pro-life community as Marie Stopes is a campaigning pro-choice organisation who have consistently advocated liberalisation of abortion in many countries around the world. The clinic was and is under no obligation to report how many abortions they conduct to any authority or on what grounds they were granted. Consequently, the clinic is able to operate beyond legal scrutiny with regard to the provision of abortion.
During the 2011-2016 term, two attempts were made to prevent private providers from offering abortions. Both attempts were sadly defeated by the use of petitions of concern. The petition of concern mechanism, which was introduced after the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, requires the signatures of 30 MLAs. Once such a petition is received, for motions or legislation to proceed they must be supported by a majority of both Unionist and Nationalist MLAs to pass. On both of these occasions the amendments fell due to lack of support among Nationalist MLAs.
In the short 2016-2017 term no further legislative attempts were made to restrict the operation of Marie Stopes in Belfast. Marie Stopes continues to provide abortions in Belfast at the current time.
Abortion is almost bound to become a big issue for the next Assembly. It has, therefore, never been more important to fight for the election of pro-Life Assembly Members to defend and celebrate our current law.
Questions for candidates
- Do you oppose the extension of the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland?
- Do you oppose the former Minister for Justice, David Ford’s proposals to liberalise the law on abortion in Northern Ireland by creating an exception for the termination of children who may be born with life limiting conditions?
- Will you commit to protecting both mother and unborn child by maintaining the law on abortion as it stands in Northern Ireland?
- Will you seek to prevent private providers such as Marie Stopes from offering abortions in NI?
[i] http://www.care.org.uk/news/latest-news/overwhelming-majority-reject-abortion-law-changes .
[ii] See the following blogpost by the Philippa Taylor of the Christian Medical Fellowship for more details on our position: http://www.cmfblog.org.uk/2015/12/11/rape-and-fatal-fetal-abnormality-is-legalising-abortion-the-answer/