Britain's order for full abortion services to be in operation in Northern Ireland by next spring is "unjust", "gravely disquieting" and threatens the Belfast Agreement, Catholic bishops have claimed.
In a joint statement by the leader of the Catholic Church in Ireland, Primate of All Ireland Archbishop of Armagh Eamon Martin, and four other bishops in the North, they also criticised politicians who have welcomed the "unilateral imposition".
The bishops urged church-goers to push abortion as a key election issue ahead of next year's polls for the Northern Ireland Assembly.
“As our society prepares in coming months to engage in the ultimate expression of democratic participation — the election to our local Assembly — we encourage all Catholics, and those share our view on the inviolability of all human life, to reflect carefully on the issues raised by this succession of unilateral impositions by the Westminster government,” they said.
“We encourage everyone who believes in the equal right to life and compassionate care for a mother and her unborn child to ask local candidates and political parties to explain their position on these interventions and on this most fundamental of all issues.”
Last week, Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis ordered the Stormont Executive to make full abortion services available no later than March 31st next year.
Legislation which permits abortion in the North in all circumstances up to 12 weeks of pregnancy was introduced at Westminster in 2019 while Stormont’s powersharing administration was collapsed.
Terminations are also allowed up to 24 weeks when there is a risk to the woman’s physical or mental health, while 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.
Some health trusts carry out abortions up to the first 10 weeks of pregnancy but because of DUP opposition there is no full centralised service.
The bishops — including Bishop of Down and Conno Noel Treanor, Bishop of Derry Donal McKeown, Bishop of Clogher Larry Duffy and Auxiliary Bishop of Armagh Michael Router — said the order "is gravely disquieting."
“It is the latest in a line of decisions by the current Westminster government which we believe threaten the fragile balance of relationships at the heart of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement,” they said.
“Sadly, some of our local political parties seem content to welcome this unilateral move by Westminster on an issue which is of fundamental importance to local voters, while rightly challenging such unilateral impositions on other issues.”
A shared search for peace in the North “is driven in no small part by our collective rejection of the brutality and demeaning of human dignity that occurs when the right to life is diminished in any way,” the bishops said.
“In unilaterally imposing this direction on the local Northern Ireland Assembly to provide abortion services, it is as if the Westminster government, and those local parties who have supported them, believe the answer to the issue of providing compassionate care for a woman and her unborn child in pregnancy can be framed simply and exclusively as a ‘healthcare issue’,” they added.
“Absent from the discussion however are the thousands of unborn children, who have no legal protection and whose humanity is excluded from the political equation.
“It is for this reason that the argument for the protection of all human life can never be abandoned or referred to human rights experts alone.
“Westminster has imposed an unjust law. Christians, and all people of good will, can never stand silently by and fail to raise their voices at any attempt to ignore completely the fact that unborn children are human beings worthy of protection.”
Stormont's Department of Health last week disclosed that there have been 1,556 abortions in the North since March last year.
At the time, Mr Lewis said he was “extremely disappointed” full services had not introduced and that a lack of engagement by the Executive means he was “left with no choice” but to issue the direction.
“I have a legal and moral obligation to ensure the women and girls in Northern Ireland are afforded their rights and can access healthcare, as set out in the 2020 regulations,” he added.
Sinn Féin, the UUP and Alliance all welcomed the move, while the DUP said it undermined devolution.