Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 29 May 2016

Northern Ireland abortion reform: MLAs clash after amendment vote is defeated

By Jonny Bell

Published 11/02/2016

Unlike other parts of the UK, the 1967 Abortion Act does not extend to Northern Ireland [Picture posed]
Unlike other parts of the UK, the 1967 Abortion Act does not extend to Northern Ireland [Picture posed]
Pro-life campaigner Bernie Smyth (centre) with Gemma Haire, Maura Smith, Clare Paradi and Catrina Forde at Stormont
Bernadette Smyth from Precious Life, the largest anti-abortion group in Northern Ireland, rejects that women's lives are being put at risk by strict laws
Every week, 20 women from Northern Ireland will travel to England to access abortion services. Stock image

Northern Ireland Assembly members have clashed on the defeat of an amendment to the Justice Bill, which would have allowed abortion in the case of fatal foetal abnormalities.

Some are describing the vote's outcome as a missed opportunity while others said it was the right thing to do as more consideration was needed on the issue.

In a debate which went on late into the night, the amendment was defeated by 59 votes to 40.

Sinn Fein said the Assembly missed a "huge opportunity" and those that opposed the amendment were "against human rights" and that the current law was incompatible with those rights.

East Londonderry MLA Cathal O hOisin lost a child immediately after birth due to a fatal foetal abnormality.

He said he was disappointed with the vote's outcome, "particularly for the likes of Sarah Ewart and all those women and couples who have come forward and shared their experiences".

"They have been promised support, but that somewhat dissipated last night," he said.

"But I am sure this matter will be revisited."

Speaking after the vote, the DUP's Nelson McCausland told the BBC: "The Assembly made the right decision on what are very important issues.

"These are issues that should not be rushed and to throw in amendments at the last minute, without proper consideration and without allowing the Assembly to scrutinise them - that's not the way to go about things."

Speaking on the BBC Stephen Nolan show, the SDLP's Dolores Kelly, whose party voted against the proposal,called for the health minister to publish draft guidelines.

She told the BBC's Stephen Nolan Show: "The SDLP formed its view from the most senior clinicians in the north and from legal experts and we welcome the DUP's working group.

"There needs to be greater clarity, that's what clinicians tell us."

A fatal foetal abnormality diagnosis means doctors believe an unborn child has a terminal condition and will die in the womb or shortly after birth.

Anyone who performs an illegal termination could be jailed for life. The law has been the subject of a bitter legal battle and landmark ruling.

It's thought thousands of woman travel to the UK every year for an abortion.

Sarah Ewart's baby did not develop a skull and was brain dead, but she could not access a termination in Northern Ireland because of the legislation.

She said her personal tragedy had been turned into a "living nightmare" by Northern Ireland law.

The DUP has asked Health Minister Simon Hamilton to set up a working group to examine the issues raised by fatal foetal abnormality.

UUP leader, Mike Nesbitt, accused the DUP of using a “mechanism” to delay making a decision until after the forthcoming May Assembly elections.

The MLA - who voted in favour of the amendment - described the move as "Dickensian".

"This is Bleak House we are in today – in the chancery courts waiting day after day after day after day for a decision that never comes.

"How cruel to those campaigning because they want relief from us."

Although DUP leader and First Minister Arlene Foster dismissed the suggestion saying she was "confused" as there was no petition of concern lodged.

Justice Minister and Alliance leader David Ford described the working group proposal as a "fudge" that would allow the matter to be dealt with after the forthcoming vote.

"It would appear that that is what some people want, that it was any excuse at all to avoid taking a decision last night so they can fudge the issue," he said.

Alliance MLA Stewart Dickson - who proposed the amendment alongside Trevor Lunn - expressed his disappointment over the vote's outcome.

"It was disingenuous for people to claim proper consultation was needed, when the Department of Justice did this extensively in 2014," he said.

"The campaign to take a major step forward for women's healthcare in Northern Ireland will not stop. I will seek to bring a private member's bill on FFA at the earliest possible opportunity, so we can reform the law and provide options that are not currently there for women."

While the Green's Steven Agnew described it as a "wasted opportunity to allow women to seek medical treatment in limited, but traumatic, circumstances".

Les Allamby, Chief Commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission said a political resolution was needed to make legislation "human rights compliant".

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