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 or 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.
During this 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 a possible conscientious objection should these exceptions be introduced. 25,000 people engaged with the consultation, with 77% of formal submissions coming out against the proposed changes. Despite the overwhelming response to the public consultation opposing proposed changes, the Justice Minister has announced that he still intends 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. It is clear that this legislation will not pass in the current mandate, but that it may be considered again in the 2016 to 2021 session.
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 fatal foetal abnormality, rape and incest. The Attorney General for Northern Ireland, John Larkin QC and the Department of Justice have subsequently decided to appeal the judgement. The appeal will be heard in June of this year.
In and of itself, this declaration 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 fatal foetal abnormality, rape and incest, do not believe that a change in the law is the best way forward. 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. It is very likely that these issues will return in the next Assembly mandate.
- 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. 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. This was due to the fact that the clinic was under no obligation to report how many abortions they conducted 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 this Assembly term, two attempts have been made to prevent private providers from offering abortions. Both attempts were sadly defeated by the use of petitions of concern. It is highly likely that in the next mandate the issue of the provision of abortion services will be debated again.
Questions for candidates
- Do you oppose the extension of the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland?
- Do you oppose the Minister for Justice’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 scrutinise the operation of private providers in Northern Ireland offering abortions?