Advocates on both sides of the abortion debate have criticised Sinn Féin after its Assembly members abstained in a vote on a Bill seeking to ban terminations in cases of non-fatal foetal disabilities.
Questions were asked about the party’s position on abortion, after Sinn Féin speakers in the debate on Monday complained about an attempt to row back on abortion legislation, yet abstained rather than opposed the second stage of the Bill.
DUP MLA Paul Givan, in putting forward his Private Members' Severe Foetal Impairment Abortion (Amendment) Bill, said it was designed to protect the lives of unborn babies with non-fatal conditions such as Down syndrome.
“This Bill tackles disability discrimination, and how the law perpetuates stereotypes,” he said.
Under legislation introduced from Westminster in 2019, when the Northern Assembly was in suspension, 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.
Abortion is permitted in all circumstances up to 12 weeks. It is also allowed up to 24 weeks, when there is a risk to the woman’s physical or mental health.
During the debate, Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill, who said she was speaking in a personal capacity, described the Bill as “the thin end of the wedge” and an attempt “to reopen a debate that has already been had around women’s healthcare provision”.
However, she told the Assembly that Sinn Féin would be abstaining in the vote.
The Sinn Féin Minister for Communities Deirdre Hargey, who also said she was speaking in a personal capacity, said the Bill was a "crude attempt to roll back legislation in line with international human rights requirements".
Later on Monday night, the Sinn Féin MP for South Down Chris Hazzard posted a tweet saying there were "few things worse than listening to old men refusing to understand that the right of a young woman to make autonomous decisions about her own body is central to her fundamental right to equality".
“Same small minds spewing vitriol yet again,” he wrote, with a hashtag, “trust women.”
This prompted further online criticism from pro-choice campaigners and queries about why Sinn Féin then abstained on the matter. Mr Hazzard also was criticised for being “ageist” with comments that a number of younger MLAs also supported Mr Givan’s bill.
Aontú leader Peadar Tóibín, TD for Meath West, who separated from Sinn Féin over its stance on abortion, accused the party of “speaking out of both sides of their mouth” on the issue.
“They are trying to ride two horses; they are trying to on one hand appeal to their traditional republican support base and give the impression that they are reluctant and cautious when it comes to abortion,” Mr Tóibín said.
“They are also speaking to their newer supporters and trying to say that they are 100 per cent pro-choice,” he added.
“The vote [on Monday] was whether or not a person should have the right to an abortion on the basis of a child having a disability. Sinn Féin used to pride itself as a party of civil rights. Here they are equivocating on disability rights, which is an incredible situation,” said Mr Tóibín.
Former People Before Profit MLA Eamon McCann tweeted that “when it comes to abortion Sinn Féin have been impaled on the fence for so long they could be torn neatly in half along the perforations”.
Sinn Féin said its position was that “abortion should be available where a woman’s life, health or mental health is at risk and in cases of fatal foetal abnormality”.
A party spokesperson said that the British government had publicly stated in relation to Mr Givan’s Bill that it would “ensure that abortion legislation remains in line with CEDAW [the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women] and therefore the DUP are aware that it will have no material effect”.
This view was challenged by a number of speakers in the Assembly on Monday including First Minister Arlene Foster of the DUP, who said abortion was a devolved matter and that the Assembly could amend current legislation.
Sinn Féin accused the DUP of aiming “to pit one vulnerable group of people against another”.
“For that reason Sinn Féin abstained on the vote on the DUP Bill,” added the spokesperson.