Labour in call over NI abortion law
Women in Northern Ireland who want to abort foetuses with severe abnormalities should be allowed to do so on the NHS in England, Labour said today.
Revised guidelines on abortion are to be brought before the Northern Ireland Executive within weeks, it has been revealed.
The move comes after Health Minister Edwin Poots met two pregnant women whose babies suffered such severe abnormalities that they could not survive after birth.
Both women were refused terminations because current legislation in Northern Ireland permits abortion only in very restricted circumstances that do not include lethal foetal abnormality.
In the House of Lords, Labour equalities spokeswoman Baroness Thornton called for the Government to take action in the interim before the Northern Ireland situation had been reviewed.
Lady Thornton said women in one part of the UK were denied "rights of access to terminations that are available to all other women in the UK".
"Would it not be fair that Northern Ireland women who want and need terminations under these very unhappy circumstances should have them provided free under the NHS where this provision is not illegal?" she asked Government Northern Ireland spokeswoman Baroness Randerson.
"I recognise that devolution is devolution but surely it was not intended to achieve this unsatisfactory outcome for women in Northern Ireland."
Lady Randerson told peers: "The Abortion Act 1967 does not extend to Northern Ireland, where abortion law is governed by the Offences Against the Person Act 1861.
"Constitutionally, abortion law in Northern Ireland is a transferred matter and is therefore a responsibility of the Northern Ireland executive ministers and so not a matter where Her Majesty's Government has any powers to intervene."
She said the recent cases raised "some very difficult issues and is very distressing".
But she said that women travelling to England for an abortion generally made their own arrangements and funded the procedure themselves.
"To make exceptions from this would be a major departure from the system of residence-based responsibility and the separation of powers between the four jurisdictions in the UK," she added.
"This is a sensitive issue that the previous Labour government when it was putting in the devolution settlement believed should be left to the people of Northern Ireland to decide themselves."
Liberal Democrat Lord Steel of Aikwood, who introduced the 1967 Act, called for it to be extended to Northern Ireland.
He said when the devolved administrations had been set up in Scotland and Wales it had been decided that the abortion law should be "uniform throughout the UK".
"Why should we leave Northern Ireland with an 1861 piece of legislation?" he asked.
Lady Randerson told him: "It would not be acceptable to the people of Northern Ireland for us to seek to change this unilaterally."
She said when new guidelines on abortion were discussed by the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2007 they were unanimously rejected.