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David Ford risks further church anger over reform abortion Bill

By Sophie Inge

Published 20/10/2016

Former Alliance leader David Ford
Former Alliance leader David Ford

The rift between former Alliance leader David Ford and the Presbyterian Church grew wider yesterday after the South Antrim MLA made a move to relax Northern Ireland's strict abortion laws.

It came just 24 hours after Mr Ford was ousted as an elder in his church for supporting same-sex marriage.

Yesterday, Mr Ford submitted a Private Member's Bill at Stormont seeking to reform the law on the termination of pregnancies in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities.

If passed, women in Northern Ireland carrying a foetus unable to survive outside the womb would be allowed to have an abortion.

But in a statement, the Presbyterian Church said that "the taking of a child's life in general cases of fatal foetal abnormality cannot be justified".

It restated its position that "human life begins at conception and that from that moment the human embryo should be treated in a manner in accordance with full human dignity".

Mr Ford's move follows a previous failed attempt to change the law while he served as Justice Minister.

He said: "The working group on abortion, which was established before May's election, has sent its report to the Health and Justice Ministers.

"While that is welcome, any guidelines coming from it will not change the law to achieve the reform needed to help women who are given the dreadful diagnosis that a longed-for child has no prospect of life.

"This is not about disability, it is solely concerned with situations where a foetus cannot survive.

"A wide-ranging consultation has already been carried out on this issue by the Department of Justice.

"We know the desire is there in Northern Ireland for change to the law. We need to help the women who wish to seek a termination in these circumstances and we need to help them now."

Last night, the Presbyterian Church said in a statement that at its general assembly in June, it called on the Governments of Northern Ireland and the Republic to ensure that women received the best care possible around the birth period.

It added: "The general assembly also received a paper which acknowledged the complexities involved in cases with children with life-limiting conditions.

"The report stated that, 'Our conviction that human life begins at conception entails that the unborn child in a condition of fatal foetal abnormality has the same rights as do other children without fatal foetal abnormality and that our responsibility towards the child with fatal foetal abnormality is one with our responsibility towards any unborn child'.

"It went on to say that, 'It goes without saying that we are dealing with an agonising situation for the mother'.

"'Yet, we hold that the taking of a child's life in general cases of fatal foetal abnormality cannot be justified."

This is the second time in as many days that the Alliance MLA has been at odds with the Presbyterian Church to which he belongs.

On Tuesday, Mr Ford was dismayed after being ousted from his post as an elder at Second Donegore Presbyterian Church near Templepatrick over his support for same-sex marriage.

Mr Ford said: "It is a matter of great sadness to Anne (his wife) and I that both Presbytery and Session have failed to act to promote healing and unity within our church, despite repeated requests from us over the last nine months.

"I believed, as an elder, that I had a part to play in making our congregation fit for purpose.

"Unfortunately, Presbytery and the judicial commission have now made that impossible."

However, the Presbyterian Moderator, Dr Frank Sellar, supported the decision, praising the church's judicial commission for its "balanced judgment" on the matter.

Yesterday, The Belfast Telegraph attempted to contact a number of Presbyterian ministers, however eight refused to comment on the issue.

But speaking to this newspaper, Rev WH Higgins, Moderator of Down Presbytery, said he supported the decision.

"The scripture is very clear and I think that, although we must have love, compassion and acceptance of all people and all views, we have taken the stand that it's unscriptural," he added.

"And I would support that a leader in our church couldn't stand by same-sex marriage because scripture is very clear on the subject."

Rev Stuart Finlay, a minister at Annalong, Co Down, added: "The church has taken the decision wisely and carefully and I'm happy they've arrived at a wise and balanced decision.

"I support my church's position on this. Marriage is exclusively between one man and one woman."

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