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Health committee looks at possibility of challenging Northern Ireland's new laws on abortion

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Question: Alex Easton

Question: Alex Easton

Question: Alex Easton

Stormont's health committee is looking into whether it is possible for the Assembly to challenge and review Northern Ireland's new abortion laws.

It comes after DUP MLA Alex Easton raised the matter at the health committee meeting on Thursday - the day after the new legal framework for abortion in Northern Ireland was published by the Northern Ireland Office.

Under the new legislation, from tomorrow, abortion services will be available without restriction in Northern Ireland until the 12th week of pregnancy.

The service will also be available up until 24 weeks if the continuation of the pregnancy would involve a risk to the woman's physical or mental health greater than that of termination, while there is no time limit in cases of severe foetal impairment or fatal foetal abnormality, or if there is a risk of death or grave permanent injury to the pregnant woman.

The controversial changes have come about after Westminster intervened last year while there was no Assembly in place, following extensive legal wrangling on the issue.

Speaking after last Thursday's sitting of the health committee, Mr Easton said: "We want to see whether the Assembly can do something to challenge what Westminster are doing, what powers we have to change things now the law is in place.

"We have asked the clerk of the committee to check whether we can overturn what Westminster has put in place. I think the timing is a bit mischievous, that it is happening during the coronavirus outbreak, I think it has been done deliberately at this time.

"Some of the changes are horrendous. Babies can be aborted up to 24 weeks, which is a fully formed baby who can survive outside the womb."

During the committee meeting last Thursday, UUP MLA Alan Chambers warned that given the current circumstances, with a lockdown in place to slow the spread of coronavirus, it may be difficult to progress the matter despite the fact he has been inundated with emails from constituents.

He said: "The reality is if yesterday was the start date of that legislation, it's law - I don't know what the procedures are for changing it and it's very difficult because the Speaker has placed restrictions on private members bills and all sorts of things. I can't see how, I don't want to give people false hope."

Paula Bradshaw, Alliance Party health spokeswoman, said: "As Mr Easton well knows, access to safe abortion services is a requirement arising from legislation initially passed in the UK Parliament last summer, with the date of April 1 set in consequent regulations agreed by the UK Government three months ago. The requirement for services and information for pregnant women, particularly those enduring crisis pregnancies, has never been more profound than during the current health emergency in which pregnant women are an at-risk group.

"It is mischievous and unbecoming to engage in political games at this time. The Health Committee's job, if it is to have a role at all, is to ensure the legislation and regulations are implemented and pregnant women have access to services on the same basis as everywhere else in the UK and Ireland."

Belfast Telegraph