Unionists to return to Stormont in last-ditch attempt to block abortion law

Special sitting of Assembly to stop decriminalisation dismissed as a ‘stunt’

If devolution is not restored in Northern Ireland by Monday, October 21st, same-sex marriage will be legalised and abortion laws liberalised. Video: Kathleen Harris

 

Almost three years since the Stormont institutions last met, a group of 31 unionist politicians has signed up to recall the Assembly for a special sitting on Monday afternoon in an attempt to halt the law changes.

However, the meeting of the Assembly will not stop the legislation being enacted, as an Executive government would need to be formed to do so. This is not expected to happen as Sinn Féin, the SDLP, the Alliance Party, the Green Party and People Before Profit have dismissed the recall as a stunt.

Abortion is set to be decriminalised in Northern Ireland from Tuesday following an intervention by MPs at Westminster in the absence of a devolved government at Stormont.

British House of Commons MPs earlier this year voted in favour of an amended version of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill to decriminalise abortion, liberalise the law and introduce same-sex civil marriage to the region.

A law allowing same-sex marriage was previously blocked by the DUP at Stormont using the petition of concern veto mechanism before the Assembly collapsed.

Repealed

In the absence of an Executive being formed on Monday, at 12.01am on Tuesday, sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 will be repealed, meaning abortion will be decriminalised.

There will be a five-month consultation on what the framework for the delivery of abortion services is to look like, which is set to be finalised and approved by the end of March.

“The women of Northern Ireland are finally free,” said human rights campaigner Dawn Purvis from Belfast, an ex-director of the now-closed Marie Stopes centre in Belfast.

“Free to choose if, when and how many children they want to have. No more will the state reduce women’s value to their breeding potential. We are equal citizens. We will be shamed no more.”

Baroness Nuala O’Loan called for an Executive to be established ahead of the deadline. Photograph: David Sleator/The Irish Times
Baroness Nuala O’Loan called for an Executive to be established ahead of the deadline. Photograph: David Sleator/The Irish Times

Baroness Nuala O’Loan, a former Northern Ireland police ombudsman, called for an Executive to be established ahead of the deadline.

She said there would be “no abortion-specific laws regulating the conduct of individuals or institutions that provide abortion services” in the North between tomorrow and whenever the area is regulated.

The law allowing same-sex marriage will come into effect in January, with the first civil marriages due to take place on February 14th. Many LGBT+ couples are already planning their weddings and those in civil partnerships can convert to civil marriages.

Campaigners

Like the LGBT+ community over same-sex marriage quality, women’s reproductive rights campaigners have been pushing for a change in the North’s law on abortion for decades.

At present, access to abortion is only permitted if a woman’s life is at risk or there is risk to her mental or physical health that is long-term or permanent.

Annually, a dozen or so abortions are performed legally, but the vast majority of women have to either travel to Britain for a termination, risk prosecution by ordering abortion pills online, end their pregnancy without medical supervision or continue with the pregnancy.

Dr Maeve O’Brien, from Alliance for Choice Derry, said decriminalisation is the first step in the process of “ensuring free, safe and legal healthcare in their own communities; free from the trauma, stigma and expense of travel”.

“We look forward to the roll-out of information, provision and after-care for all who require it,” she said.

Bernadette Smyth, director of the anti-abortion Precious Life group, said “abortion is murder” and the law change would lead to the “worst onslaught since the Troubles”.

“What else can I call it?” she said, adding that if needs be she would seek to have any abortion guidelines judicially reviewed.

“Peace must continue in the womb.”