Northern Assembly rejects abortion law changes

MLAs vote against proposals to allow terminations in rape, abnormality, incest cases

The DUP instead proposed the creation of a working group to look at how the issue of fatal foetal abnormality could be addressed. Photograph: Paul Faith/PA.

The DUP instead proposed the creation of a working group to look at how the issue of fatal foetal abnormality could be addressed. Photograph: Paul Faith/PA.

 

The Northern Assembly has voted to reject proposals to permit abortion in Northern Ireland in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, rape and incest.

The DUP instead proposed the creation of a working group to look at how the issue of fatal foetal abnormality could be addressed. It would report in six months.

“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,” said a party spokesman.

Shortly before midnight on Wednesday, after a long debate, Assembly members voted 59 to 40 against allowing abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality. They voted 64 to 30 against permitting abortion in cases of rape and incest.

During discussion of the consideration stage of the Justice Bill on Thursday night there were amendments proposed from some individual members of Alliance, the Greens and NI21 that would permit abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality and also proposals that would additionally allow terminations in cases of rape and incest.

Proposing permitting abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality Alliance MLA Stewart Dickson said: “If we are to continue to fail women in Northern Ireland in this area then we are abdicating our duties as representatives. The traumatic journey to England for many young women is becoming a shame on Northern Ireland and to force women with a fatal foetal pregnancy to look elsewhere for help and support make this worse.”

Acting individually Alliance MLA Anna Lo proposed allowing abortion in cases of rape and incest.

Sinn Féin MLA Caitríona Ruane said the party opposed the extension of the Abortion Act 1967 to Northern Ireland.

“However, we believe that in cases of rape, or sexual crime or when a pregnant woman’s life is in danger, the option of termination should be available,” she said.

“Our policy also reflects the view that termination of pregnancy should be available to those who choose to avail of it in situations of fatal foetal abnormality,” added Ms Ruane.

Ulster Unionist Party and Alliance members were allowed a freedom of conscience vote while the DUP and the SDLP voted against.

An SDLP spokeswoman said the party had received medical and legal advice that the amendments were flawed.

She said that “the Justice Bill was not intended for this purpose” and that “last-minute amendments” to the legislation were no way to deal with the complexity of this issue.

The SDLP indicated it would engage with the working group on fatal foetal abnormality proposed by the DUP.

The Royal College of Obstetricians in Northern Ireland welcomed the DUP proposal to establish the working group.

At the end of November, Mr Justice Mark Horner held that abortion legislation in Northern Ireland breached Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights by failing to provide an exception to the prohibition of abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality at any time during pregnancy or where the pregnancy is the result of sexual crime.

The judge effectively put it to the Assembly to legislate for his judgment.

The North’s Attorney General John Larkin, QC and the Alliance Minister for Justice David Ford are appealing Mr Justice Horner’s decision. Mr Ford supported abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality but warned that a lack of “legal certainty” following the judgment could lead inadvertently to abortion on demand in Northern Ireland.