Why do Sinn Fein and Alliance want to introduce very worst section of Abortion Act?
Candidates need asked on the doorstep if they support discrimination against disabled babies, says Alban Maginness
Few people will be acquainted with an unassuming hero for the disabled, the Conservative peer Lord Kevin Shinkwin. He is a rather unusual looking, smallish man, who was born disabled. The explanation for his physical unusualness is a congenital disorder called osteogenesis imperfecta, which affects the bones, causing them to become brittle and subject to breakage.
He is a formidable campaigner for the rights of the disabled and leads a campaign called simply We're All Equal.
There is no doubt about his ability to speak out strongly for disabled people like himself. He does so eloquently and gently, but with powerful persuasion and dry humour.
Two weeks ago, Lord Shinkwin spoke on his amendment to the abortion law in Britain, which he said was to address a legal loophole that allows selected abortion based on disability.
Under the Abortion Act 1967, as amended by the Human Embryology Act 1990, a severely disabled baby may be lawfully aborted up to birth. As the baby approaches full term, one wonders where the difference lies between abortion and infanticide. On the other hand, healthy babies can only be legally aborted within the first 24 weeks of their lives in the womb.
In his speech to the House of Lords, drawing attention to himself and his disability, he rather mordantly suggested, given the state of the current law on abortion, "... the writing was on the wall for people like me".
He explained that people with congenital disabilities are, in fact, facing "extinction", given the freedom that there is under the current law to abort the disabled right up to birth.
With a good deal of irony, he stated that: "If we were animals, perhaps we might qualify for protection as an endangered species."
However, he stated that: "We are only human beings with disabilities, so we do not."
With skilful self-deprecation and wit, Lord Shinkwin highlighted in his House of Lords speech the legal scandal that discriminates against disabled, as opposed to able-bodied, babies.
He referred his fellow Lords to the amazing success of British Paralympic athletes in Rio last year.
They represented their country with distinction and people were naturally proud of their great success. He emphasised that they only qualified because they were disabled.
But, as he pointed out ,the law regards that essential qualification for going to Rio as a reason they should die in the womb. He questioned how is that fair, right, or logical?
His amendment - if passed - would get rid of this legal loophole, which allows for disability-based discrimination in abortion law.
Lord Shinkwin is right - this is deadly discrimination against disabled babies and the problem is growing, as there has been a jump of 34% from 2011 to 2015 in the abortion of disabled babies.
In 2015, 3,213 babies diagnosed as having a disability were aborted. This represents a huge, 68% increase over the 10 years since 2005.
To date, at any rate, our law is different and prevents the abortion of any baby, except where the life of the mother is at risk. Therefore, there is no discrimination against disabled babies as there is currently in Britain with its two-tier time-limit.
All the main parties here say that they are opposed to the introduction of the 1967 Abortion Act.
However, some parties - notably Sinn Fein and Alliance - in the election propose a change in the law to permit abortion for babies that have fatal foetal abnormality (FFA).
If such a condition were to be diagnosed in Britain and the mother wanted an abortion, she could receive a termination, relying on section 1 (1) (d) of the Abortion Act, on the basis that her baby was severely disabled, because it was suffering from FFA.
Furthermore, there has never been a time limit proposed by the local advocates of this change in our abortion law.
What we would be getting here, if the law was changed in that manner, would be the effective application of section 1 (1) (d) of the Abortion Act 1967.
So, some of those who profess to be against the 1967 Act would, in effect, be introducing to Northern Ireland the most egregious provision of that Act: abortion on the grounds of disability.
This is the very provision that Lord Shinkwin is attempting to repeal, given its grave discriminatory consequences for babies with disability.
So, when those parties come round the doors, looking for your vote, ask them, are they truly in favour of equality and ending discrimination against disabled people? Ask them to justify discriminating against disabled babies by way of introducing abortion especially for them.
Ask them, do they really understand and oppose the 1967 Abortion Act and, if they do, why, then, are they importing its worst provision into our law?