A Bill that would have removed the provision for terminations of pregnancy in the case of non-fatal disability from Northern Ireland's abortion laws has been narrowly defeated at Stormont.
Assembly members debated the amendment to the North’s abortion laws on Tuesday and the key clause in the Severe Foetal Impairment Abortion (Amendment) Bill was defeated by 45 votes to 43.
Sinn Féin voted against, as did all but one Alliance MLA, as did some SDLP and Ulster Unionist Assembly members, and the People Before Profit and Green representatives.
The Bill, which had been sponsored by Christopher Stalford of the DUP, had been at the further consideration stage in the Assembly. The TUV (Traditional Unionist Voice) MLA voted with the DUP.
It will now be referred back to the speaker, Alex Maskey, and it is understood the DUP is seeking legal advice around the protection of rights for people with disabilities.
Speaking after the vote, Mr Stalford said the Bill would have made it illegal "to abort a baby right up to birth (40+ weeks) for disabilities such as Down's syndrome, club foot or cleft lip". The fact that MLAs had rejected it was "deeply worrying and sends an awful message about the value the Northern Ireland Assembly places on the life of an unborn disabled child", he said.
“The current law, foisted on us by Westminster, means a baby with no disability can be aborted for any reason up to 24 weeks but a baby with a disability can be aborted right up to 40 weeks.
“We sought to moderately amend the law,” he said, adding that “this is not the end of the road.”
Under the abortion law which came into effect in Northern Ireland in March of last year as a result of legislation passed in Westminster, abortion was made legal without restriction until the 12th week of pregnancy.
Abortions are also available up until 24 weeks if the continuation of the pregnancy would involve a risk to the woman’s physical or mental health greater than that of termination, and with no time limit in the case of severe foetal impairment or fatal foetal abnormality, or if there is a risk of death or grave permanent injury to the pregnant woman.
The North’s abortion laws are further reaching than those in the Republic, where abortion in the case of severe foetal impairment up to birth is not permitted.
Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill, speaking during the debate in her capacity as a Sinn Féin MLA, said the Bill was part of a “shameful” strategy to “block” abortion services.
She said that “instead of supporting the provision of modern, compassionate abortion services for women, the DUP and UUP continues to hold up and deny this essential health care service to women and girls who need it”.
She questioned why more than a year after the law was changed, the North's Minister for Health Robin Swann "still has not moved to implement these services" and called on him to "answer why this is the case".
Ms O’Neill said Sinn Féin had submitted a private members motion on the commissioning of services and was seeking cross-party support for it.
She said Sinn Féin had “an all-Ireland position and policy on abortion services” and wanted “to see the very same laws and services that have been adopted in the South, following the repeal of the Eighth Amendment, to be implemented” in the North.
"The very same health care services available in Dublin must be available here in Belfast, " she said.
Alliance MLA Paula Bradshaw said the Bill "ran contrary to international human rights standards, contrary to the existing law of Northern Ireland, and most of all contrary to the interests of women".
She said that it “should not stop us either from pursuing many of the issues around disability rights and stigmatisation which were and continue to be legitimately raised by campaigners” but that “ultimately, however, this was about trying to restrict the woman’s right to choose and it is right that this attempt was defeated.”
Opening the debate in the Assembly, People Before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll said the Bill would not prevent abortion in all cases of severe foetal abnormality but would simply "export grief" and force women to travel for terminations.
He said he did not accept the Bill provided protection for disabled people and said that “on the contrary, it’s being used to pit disabled people against people who need abortions”.