Arlene Foster, Michelle O’Neill personally intervene during NI abortion debate

Foster warns of ‘slippery slope’ to ‘eugenics’ while O’Neill says NI ‘failing’ women by not introducing termination services

The North's First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill intervened from opposite ends of the abortion debate during discussion of a DUP bill seeking to ban terminations in cases of non-fatal foetal disabilities.

The DUP and Sinn Féin leaders took the unusual step of both speaking in a personal capacity as Assembly members were discussing the second stage of the severe foetal impairment abortion (amendment) bill on Monday.

Ms O’Neill expressed “deep unease” at the “narrow focus” of the bill while Ms Foster compared the abortion of unborn babies with Down’s Syndrome with “eugenics”.

More liberal abortion laws in Northern Ireland were introduced at Westminster in 2019 when the Northern Assembly was still in suspension.


Abortion is permitted in all circumstances up to 12 weeks. They are also allowed up to 24 weeks when there is a risk to the woman’s physical or mental health. There is no time limit in cases of fatal foetal abnormality or when there has been a diagnosis of a serious physical or mental impairment that would cause a serious disability.


DUP MLA Paul Givan in presenting the bill said the current legislation allowed for abortion in cases of Down's Syndrome up to full term even though Down's Syndrome life expectancy had increased to 50 or 60 years.

He made reference to Heidi Crowter, who has Down's Syndrome and who has been campaigning for a change in the law in England and Wales which allows for abortion up to full term in cases of disability.

Mr Givan said the current legislation “sends out the message loud and clear that the lives of people with disabilities are less valuable and worthy of protection than the lives of people without disabilities”.

“A law which fosters this thinking in 2021 is completely unacceptable,” he said.

The North's Health Minister Robin Swann has come under criticism for not introducing Northern Ireland- wide abortion services to fully implement the new legislation. Individual health trusts have established temporary abortion services.

Mr Swann has said that as it was a controversial matter it was for the Northern Executive to establish such abortion provision.

Later in the debate Ms O'Neill speaking in a personal capacity said Sinn Féin would be abstaining in the vote. The DUP supported Mr Givan's bill while SDLP, Ulster Unionist Party and Alliance MLAs had a free vote on the issue.

Ms O’Neill said the DUP and Mr Swann were “failing” women by refusing to commission services legislated for almost two years ago.

“Women are entitled to have compassionate healthcare. It is a human right to have compassionate healthcare and should be the focus of what this assembly is concerned about,” she said.

“This is the thin end of the wedge and attempting to reopen a debate that has already been had around women’s healthcare provision. I am here to give a voice to those women who find themselves in incredibly difficult and very vulnerable circumstances,” added Ms O’Neill.

Later again in the evening First Minister Ms Foster said she had not intended to speak but felt compelled to make her points because she felt “incredibly strongly” about the issue.

“We’re talking about real people who are our constituents who feel that we don’t value them,” she said in referring to Down’s Syndrome.

She compared the aborting of unborn babies with Down’s Syndrome to eugenics. “No one’s life is less valuable and this standard should apply to lives inside and outside the womb,” she said.

Ms Foster added, “We are entering into the realms of eugenics and you can deny that all you like but we are on a very slippery slope. Everyone should be very careful about that because it is Down’s Syndrome and non-fatal disability today, what is it in 10 years’ time that we are deciding is appropriate for abortion?”

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty

Gerry Moriarty is the former Northern editor of The Irish Times