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MLAs sit on, but abortion law change looks unlikely

By Lesley-Anne McKeown

Published 11/02/2016

Pro-life campaigner Bernie Smyth (centre) with Gemma Haire, Maura Smith, Clare Paradi and Catrina Forde at Stormont
Pro-life campaigner Bernie Smyth (centre) with Gemma Haire, Maura Smith, Clare Paradi and Catrina Forde at Stormont

A Stormont debate on abortion yesterday went long into the night - although the chance of any immediate legislative changes at the end appeared slim.

MLAs were considering controversial proposals to permit abortions in cases where the foetus has no chance of survival outside the womb (fatal foetal abnormality) or where a sexual crime has been committed.

However, any change to the law here appeared unlikely well before the late night vote after the DUP and SDLP signalled their opposition.

The DUP wants Health Minister Simon Hamilton to establish a working group to examine the issue and report back in six months' time.

A spokesman said: "We believe that this issue should best be dealt with in a measured way, rather than in haste and without the benefit of appropriate scrutiny.

"Rushed law can often turn out to be bad law. Indeed, we understand that the Attorney General has concerns about these amendments. This Justice Bill was not intended for this purpose."

The vexed issue of abortion has long divided opinion in Northern Ireland, but was thrust back on to the political agenda when Sarah Ewart went public about having to travel for an abortion after being told her baby had no skull and could not survive after birth.

Following a landmark legal action by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission last year, a High Court judge found the failure to provide legal exceptions breached human rights obligations.

In cases of fatal foetal abnormality, Mr Justice Mark Horner concluded the mother's inability to access an abortion was a "gross interference with her personal autonomy", while a disproportionate burden was placed on victims when a sexual crime occurred.

The judge's declaration of incompatibility did not immediately lift the ban, but placed an onus on the Stormont Assembly to legislate.

SDLP MLA Dolores Kelly raised concerns that relaxing legislation could pave the way for "abortion on demand". She said: "This proposed amendment, what legislators may believe is a discreet and minor development of existing law, has also introduced a critical difference to the underlying philosophy of abortion legislation which will undoubtedly be focused upon by those who seek greater change."

The Ulster Unionist Party gave MLAs a free vote on the issue.

Party leader Mike Nesbitt said: "I am not comfortable standing here as a man discussing what a woman should do with her body.

"We all should agree this is a horrendous choice for these women, their partners and their families."

Before the debate, Stormont's top legal adviser, Attorney General John Larkin QC, raised concerns that changing the law on fatal foetal abnormality could breach obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

In a letter to Traditional Unionist Voice MLA Jim Allister, Mr Larkin said: "Providing for a criminal law exception for 'fatal foetal abnormality', as proposed by this amendment, provides unborn children diagnosed with such a disability with much less protection under the law of Northern Ireland than those without such a disability."

During the debate Alliance Party MLA Stewart Dickson said: "If we are to continue to fail women in Northern Ireland then we are abdicating our duties as representatives."

The UK's 1967 Abortion Act does not extend to Northern Ireland, where abortions are banned except where the life or mental health of the mother is in danger.

Anyone who performs an illegal termination could be jailed for life.

Every year hundreds of women travel to other parts of the UK for abortions.

Sinn Fein said its MLAs would support the amendments.

"There is no place at births for politicians," said Caitriona Ruane.

"We are supposed to make the law. It's the clinician, the woman and her family who should decide and that is key here today."

Timeline for how issue came back on agenda

Abortion has been a divisive issue in Northern Ireland for many years. Here is a timeline of significant events which have put it back on the political agenda.

October 2013: Sarah Ewart (24) goes public about having to travel to England to access abortion services after being told her baby had a fatal foetal abnormality and could not survive outside the womb. Her experience shines a public spotlight on the contentious issue and sparks huge public debate.

October 2014: The Department of Justice (DoJ) publishes a public consultation on proposals to amend the criminal law on abortion, to allow for termination of pregnancy in cases of lethal foetal abnormality, and sought views on sexual crime.

December 2014: The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) initiates legal proceedings against the DoJ, claiming the existing law violates the human rights of women and girls. The commission said the DoJ consultation did not go far enough and did not deal with cases of serious malformation of foetus.

February 2015: The NIHRC successfully applies for leave to judicially review the law on termination of pregnancy in Northern Ireland at the High Court.

April 2015: Northern Ireland's Justice Minister David Ford announces a recommendation to change the abortion law in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, but would not proceed with changes relating to pregnancy resulting from sexual crime.

June 2015: The NIHRC judicial review of the law on termination of pregnancy is heard by Mr Justice Mark Horner over three days at the High Court in Belfast.

November 2015: Mr Justice Mark Horner rules the strict abortion laws in Northern Ireland are in breach of human rights legislation.

January 2015: Mr Ford and Attorney General John Larkin QC indicate separately they are to appeal the High Court ruling.

February 10 2015: Assembly Members at Stormont debate amendments to the Justice Bill, which include proposals to relax the law on abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality and sexual crime.

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