A Northern Ireland minister who compared abortion levels to the Holocaust has come under severe attack from pro-choice campaigners and politicians.
During a heated Assembly debate on abortion, DUP junior minister Jonathan Bell said the Western world has “destroyed more viable human life” than Adolf Hitler put through the gas chambers in World War Two.
Mr Bell, who works in the Office of First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, also asked for the “forgiveness of God” after MLAs rejected attempts to outlaw private clinics like Marie Stopes in Northern Ireland.
The MLA’s comments have sparked anger, with the Alliance for Choice group calling them “incredibly insulting”, and the head of Northern Ireland’s Family Planning Association describing it as “offensive language”.
Mr Bell asked MLAs on Tuesday: “Is it not the case that we in the West should hang our heads in abject shame? We have to face the truth that, in the West, we have destroyed more viable human life than Hitler ever put into a gas chamber.”
He added: “May God forgive us for what we have done in this House today — the God who said he knew us and formed us in our mother's womb. I believe that those boys and girls who are in their mother's womb are being let down.”
Dr Audrey Simpson, director of the Family Planning Association in Northern Ireland, said: “I think it is unfortunate that in Northern Ireland, unlike the other legislative structures in the rest of the country, we cannot have a debate without this offensive language.
“It is also disrespectful of women who have gone through this because of their own personal circumstances which may include rape, incest or because they have been told their pregnancy is not viable.”
Goretti Horgan, spokeswoman for the Alliance for Choice group, said the remarks had left her angry and distressed.
“I find it incredibly insulting to the tens of thousands of women from Northern Ireland who have had abortions, and for reasons which are ethical, and about their own specific family circumstances.
“It is particularly insulting also to those, and there are some from the Jewish tradition living in Northern Ireland who may have family who went through the Holocaust.
“To compare the suffering of people who went through the Holocaust, who were sentient, fully realised human beings, with women who are refusing life, not taking life but refusing it, is just incredible.”
Mr Bell’s comparison yesterday drew the ire of political opponents whose support brought Sinn Fein up to the requisite 30 signatures needed for a ‘petition of concern’ which stymied the DUP/SDLP move to force all abortion treatment to take place on NHS premises by requiring a majority of both unionists and nationalists.
Alliance’s Anna Lo said: “When we have about 40 legal abortions in Northern Ireland every year how do you equate that to the Holocaust? People with coherent thinking will know you cannot equate the two things.
“It is just typical of the hyping up of the debate, going over the top so that we cannot have a rational debate.
“It is also typical of the sort of bullying tactics we tend to get from the pro-life side, it is all about religious dogma and what they say is the protection of the unborn child. What about the women?”
Green Party leader Steven Agnew said: “Comparing abortion to the Holocaust is offensive to many people and anyone who has any real knowledge of the death camps should find that comparison an affront to the memory of the six million people who were tortured and killed by the Nazis.
“This was one of the most painful chapters in human history and anyone with real compassion and empathy should not use this human tragedy to further their own agenda.
“Whatever we think of abortion laws in other Western countries, they are created through democratic process and should not be compared to the extreme actions of a fascist state.”
Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt declined to comment on Mr Bells’ remarks directly but said it was time for the Executive on which he is junior minister to take action.
Mr Nesbitt, who voted against the DUP/SDLP bid to amend the Criminal Law Bill, said: “One of the reasons I did so was to put pressure on the Executive to recognise that they have to regulate private sector health provision.”
Despite attempts to contact him yesterday, Mr Bell was not available for a response to the criticism.
41-43: average number of abortions carried out in Northern Ireland each year.
1,500: number of women from Northern Ireland who travel to Britain each year for abortions.
Rising star not afraid of ruffling feathers
By Adrian Rutherford
The public spotlight was on Jonathan Bell from the day he entered Stormont in early 2010.
He was selected to take the Strangford seat left vacant after the high-profile resignation of Iris Robinson.
Tipped as one of the DUP’s rising stars, the 43-year-old became junior minister within 18 months.
His Holocaust remarks are not the first time he has caused controversy. Less than two months after becoming an MLA, Mr Bell was banished from the chamber over comments made to Caitriona Ruane. He accused the then Education Minister of misleading the Assembly by suggesting his DUP colleague Sammy Wilson had endorsed her plans to remove prep school funding. When he refused to withdraw his remarks, he was ordered to leave.
Last May Mr Bell apologised for comments suggesting that Northern Ireland’s golf clubs may harbour secret sectarian attitudes.
He made the suggestion while at a community relations conference with Martina Anderson, also a junior minister at the time.
They said the golf-loving middle classes were not immune from religious prejudice.
Ms Anderson agreed. But after criticism from the Golfing Union of Ireland, Mr Bell apologised.
Before Stormont, Mr Bell sat on Craigavon Borough Council between 1997 and 2005, serving as both deputy mayor and mayor.
Originally UUP, he switched to the DUP in 2000. In 2005 he was elected to Ards Borough Council, serving for six years before stepping down in 2011.
The psychology graduate also holds a Masters degree and a professional diploma in social work.
Mr Bell previously worked as a senior social worker in the Newtownards area and is a former Northern Ireland Human Rights Commissioner.