Westminster has acted "in an unprecedented way" in its bid to introduce abortion in Northern Ireland, which will have "a devastating impact" on the rights of the unborn, Northern Ireland's Catholic bishops have charged.
The House of Commons passed legislation on Wednesday that would pave the way for the introduction of abortion, though the British government began efforts in the House of Lords last night to delay its implementation.
Unless it faces last-minute amendments, the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill would take effect only if the Northern Ireland Assembly, which has been suspended the past two years, is not operational by October 21st.
"What is happening in Westminster during these days recklessly undermines this fundamental right of citizens and the principle of devolution at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement," said Archbishop Eamon Martin, the Bishop of Down and Connor, Noel Treanor, the Bishop of Derry, Donal McKeown, and the Bishop of Clogher, Larry Duffy.
Urging British prime minister Theresa May to overturn a "hijacking" of legislation for purposes it was never intended, the bishops said London must "uphold the right of NI citizens, under the Good Friday Agreement, to decide these matters for themselves".
“We appeal to all citizens in Northern Ireland to give expression to their commitment to the care of every mother and unborn child by asking their political representatives to ensure the equal right to life is upheld in our devolved legislation,” they said.
Meanwhile, former Sinn Féin Stormont Assembly MLA Francie Brolly warned that opposition to the legalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland is "far more widespread" among nationalists than election results indicate.
Mr Brolly, who served in the Stormont Assembly for East Derry between 2003 and 2010, resigned from Sinn Féin last year over its stance on abortion. In May he stood as a local election candidate for the pro-life republican party Aontú.
Westminster should not legislate on Northern Ireland issues, he said. “Devolution is being interfered with. It was hard-won.”
However, Grainne Teggart, Northern Ireland campaigns manager for Amnesty UK, said "successive" opinion polls and studies have consistently shown that the majority of the NI public favour abortion law reform, including decriminalisation.
Eighty per cent thought that a woman should have the choice of abortion if her health was at risk, or in cases of rape or incest
Last week, the House of Commons voted by 332 to 99 to implement a United Nations report that said the lack of abortion legislation was a violation of the human rights of women in Northern Ireland.
According to an October 2018 opinion poll on behalf of Amnesty International, 65 per cent of people in Northern Ireland believe that abortion should not be a crime. Eighty per cent thought that a woman should have the choice of abortion if her health was at risk, or in cases of rape or incest.
Figures from the Department of Health and Social Care show that 1,053 women travelled to England or Wales to access abortion services in 2018. Twelve terminations of pregnancy were carried out in Northern Ireland in 2017-18, according to the North's Department of Health.
These figures do not include those who purchase abortion pills illegally online. A mother is due to face trial in Northern Ireland in November for buying the pills for her teenage daughter.