Bid to ban private abortion clinics in Northern Ireland flounders in sea of recrimination
An attempt to outlaw private clinics like Marie Stopes dealing with abortions has been defeated in the Assembly in a long day of heated debate and recrimination.
A joint DUP and SDLP amendment to the new Criminal Law Bill would have seen jail sentences of up to 10 years for those involved in conducting terminations outside of NHS premises.
Sinn Fein, backed by Green Party MLA Steven Agnew and Alliance's Anna Lo, tabled a 'petition of concern', a mechanism requiring the proposal to have majority support among both nationalists and unionists.
After a five-hour debate, 93 of 108 members voted – 53 in favour and 40 against. As it did not reach the cross-community threshold, the amendment fell. Opening the debate, one of the amendment's co-authors, the DUP's Paul Givan, called it "shameful" that the vote had already been pre-determined by the petition of concern.
"We should be as one on the point that the NHS is where vulnerable women and their unborn children should be cared for, not a private clinic making financial gain," he argued.
Industry Minister Arlene Foster said Sinn Fein was demonstrating its ideological meltdown in supporting the petition device.
"We have known for some time that Sinn Fein is morally bankrupt in everything that it has been involved in over the past 40 years.
"However... what we have here today is an example of its ideological bankruptcy," she said.
SF's Caitriona Ruane said those who had brought the amendment should be ashamed of themselves in attempting to limit the opportunity "for a woman to exercise the option of a termination when her life is in danger".
"Tabling this amendment is perhaps the worst example that we have seen to date in the Assembly of stroke politics. (It) is about trying to close down the Marie Stopes clinic," she added.
The UUP split, with some including leader Mike Nesbitt voting with Sinn Fein against the amendment, which was supported by former leader Tom Elliott. The party said members were allowed to vote according to conscience.
Alliance's Ms Lo, whose backing with Green Party MLA Agnew gave Sinn Fein the necessary support to bring the petition of concern, asked how long a blind eye is going to be turned to the hundreds of women who go to Britain every year for abortions.
Pat Ramsey, of the SDLP, which co-authored the amendment, said: "The right to human life takes precedent over every other right."
His colleague Patsy McGlone argued: "The pro-abortion lobby is keen to push the boundaries of the law on the issue. Many suspect that that is the motivation behind the sudden appearance of a Marie Stopes International clinic."
Ms Lo said if the organisation needed to be regulated, then that should be the responsibility of the Health Minister.
UUP MLA Mr Elliott, who also drew up the amendment, said it was about ensuring that all those in need of advice, treatment and support can have the confidence that it will be "in the best interests of those vulnerable individuals".
Stewart Dickson of Alliance accused those behind the amendment of "populist opportunism".
Green MLA Steven Agnew said he did not believe those behind the amendment intended to criminalise women who take the morning after pill. Justice Minister David Ford said the issue should be taken forward with full public consultation.
Emotive issue fuels tinderbox atmosphere
By Noel McAdam
In the end, on the highly emotive issue of abortion, the Assembly acquitted itself, well, manfully.
Because for quite long periods during the five-hour debate women were all but missing from the chamber, particularly on the unionist side.
When they did participate, however, the female MLAs seemed particularly powerful.
Like Alliance's Anna Lo: "I am not pro-abortion, I am pro-choice.
"I believe women have the right to decide what to do with their bodies and it is not for me or this House to tell them."
Yet even at the peak there were only seven of the Assembly's 14 women MLAs present.
In contrast, the public gallery was at times absolutely packed with women, and not all of them members of the campaign group Precious Life, which had brought a petition purportedly signed by 250,000 people in favour of the anti-Marie Stopes move.
Passions, of course, run high on both sides of this controversial debate.
There were a few angry flurries and a fair amount of party politicking and some extremely emotive language.
Like DUP junior minister Jonathan Bell, who told the chamber: "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 even managed to bring in the flag dispute – honestly – when Alliance was accused, as in the Belfast City Hall debate, of acting as a "flag of convenience" for Sinn Fein.
The closest it came to getting personal, however, was when Sinn Fein's Caitriona Ruane thanked Ms Lo and Green MLA Steven Agnew for backing its petition of concern and DUP members shouted "shame on them" and "disgrace".
However, Speaker William Hay did warn Members to moderate their language and managed to keep a firm grip on proceedings.
Early on the chamber was fuller than usual for a Tuesday morning, but for the most part there were on average between 30 to 40 of the 108 MLAs attending the debate at any one time.
The relative calm was all the more remarkable given the potential for combustion and the frustration and anger over both the DUP/SDLP amendment and the Sinn Fein/Alliance/Green Party mechanism to derail it, which helped to fuel the tinderbox atmosphere.