Block on Northern Ireland abortion law reform 'would betray women': Amnesty

Failure to reform Northern Ireland’s strict abortion laws would be a “betrayal of women”, according to Amnesty International.

Proposals to allow terminations in certain limited circumstances are among a number of amendments to the Justice Bill being debated at the devolved Stormont Assembly.

Patrick Corrigan, Amnesty’s regional programme director, said: “Northern Ireland’s abortion law dates from Victorian times, is among the most restrictive in the world and is in urgent need of reform.

"A vote to stymie change today is a further betrayal of women and girls who will continue to be forced to travel outside Northern Ireland to seek the healthcare they are denied at home.”

Unlike other parts of the UK, the 1967 Abortion Act does not extend to Northern Ireland where abortions are banned except where the life or mental health of the mother is in danger.

Anyone who performs an illegal termination could be jailed for life.

Proposals to allow abortions in cases where the foetus has no chance of survival outside the womb or where a sexual crime has been committed have been tabled by the Alliance Party MLAs Stewart Dickson and Trevor Lunn.

However they look set to fail after the DUP and SDLP signalled their opposition.

Instead, the DUP wants Health Minister Simon Hamilton to establish a working group to examine the issue and report back in six months’ time.

A party spokesman said: “We believe that this issue should best be dealt with in a measured way rather than in haste and without the benefit of appropriate scrutiny. Rushed law can often turn out to be bad law.”

The SDLP said its members would be voting against the “flawed” amendments.

Last year the contentious issue of abortion ended up in the courts when the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission won its judicial review of termination of pregnancy laws.

In a landmark ruling, Mr Justice Mark Horner found the failure to provide legal exceptions breached a woman’s right to privacy.

In cases of fatal foetal abnormality, he concluded the mother’s inability to access an abortion was a “gross interference with her personal autonomy” while a disproportionate burden was placed on victims when a sexual crime occurred.

The judge’s declaration of incompatibility did not immediately lift the ban but placed an onus on the Stormont Assembly to legislate.

Les Allamby, chief commissioner with the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, urged political action.

He said: “We would welcome the outstanding issues being resolved politically. However, if the Northern Ireland Assembly fails to act today in accordance with the court judgment, then our elected representatives will have missed an opportunity to address ongoing human rights violations.

“They will have neglected the fundamental rights of vulnerable women and girls facing the most difficult circumstances, when they could have resolved the situation. Human rights are often relied on in political debates. Today will be measure of how committed our politicians are to protecting human rights in practice.”

Meanwhile, Stormont’s chief legal adviser Attorney General John Larkin QC has raised concerns that changes to the law could breach obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).

In a letter to the Traditional Unionist Voice MLA Jim Allister, the attorney general said: “Providing for a criminal law exception for ’fatal foetal abnormality’, as proposed by this amendment, provides unborn children diagnosed with such a disability with much less protection under the law of Northern Ireland than those without such a disability.”

He also highlighted cases in Spain and Austria where the UNCRPD committee has recommended that states should not abolish any distinctions related to abortion in foetuses with disabilities.

He added: “In my view those unborn children who are ’doomed to die’ or are otherwise regarded by the proposers of this amendment as unworthy of life because of the nature of their disability are equally protected by the UNCRPD provisions as those who are not so clinically assessed.”

Conscience provisions for medics who have religious or ethical objections to participating in abortions were also inadequate, according to Mr Larkin.

Pro-life groups have also held vigils at Stormont to highlight their opposition to any potential law change.

One of the largest, Precious Life, has said it will “expose” any MLA who votes in favour of the amendments.

Director Bernadette Smyth said: “The people of Northern Ireland have made their voices heard that abortion will never be in their name, and we are very hopeful that the political parties who had won the votes of the people in the last Northern Ireland Assembly election and were elected because of their strongly pro-life party policies will vote against these evil amendments.”

The special plenary session convened to discuss the large number of Justice Bill amendments was expected to sit late into the night.


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