Debate over abortion law at Stormont 'a shameful pantomime'
The return of the Northern Ireland Assembly today in an attempt to stop reform of Northern Ireland's abortion law has been described as "nothing more than a cheap political stunt".
Grainne Teggart from Amnesty International has expressed concern after the DUP and UUP said their MLAs will attend today's controversial sitting - the first time politicians have taken their seats at Stormont in more than 1,000 days.
However, DUP leader Arlene Foster denied the sitting is a political stunt. Writing in today's Belfast Telegraph, she stated: "I hope that whatever the outcome of proceedings, everyone will be able to look upon the sitting as a demonstration of what is possible with genuine effort and determination. The public deserve better than the last 1,000 days and we must strive to deliver that for everyone."
TUV leader Jim Allister has also said he will attend, as has SDLP MLA Daniel McCrossan, despite the fact his party leader Colum Eastwood has branded the recall "a total stunt". Sinn Fein and the Alliance Party have said their MLAs will not be present in the chamber, while Green Party leader Clare Bailey said it was a "shameful pantomime".
The recall of the Assembly will not affect the impending law changes as a Speaker must first be elected and an Executive would also have to be appointed, which cannot happen without support from Sinn Fein.
As a result, abortion will be decriminalised at midnight tonight, allowing women to access terminations where there is a risk to their mental or physical health, in cases of serious and fatal foetal abnormalities, or if they have been the victim of a sexual crime such as rape or incest. There will also be an interim moratorium on the prosecution of anyone who undergoes or assists in a termination.
Speaking ahead of today's sitting, Ms Teggart said: "Using abortion rights as a bargaining chip to restore devolution is utterly appalling. Attempts to recall the Assembly are nothing more than a cheap political stunt.
"The decriminalisation of abortion does not mean deregulation, it simply means abortion will be treated for what it is, healthcare, instead of a criminal justice matter. The current law forced countless women and girls on difficult and lonely journeys away from home and threatened jail sentences for accessing healthcare that is available in other parts of the UK and Ireland."
Until now, it has only been legal to carry out a termination in Northern Ireland where continuing the pregnancy would result in long-term and serious damage to the woman's health.
Pro-life organisations have warned the reform of the law will result in abortion on demand services and that it will be legal to terminate pregnancies up to 28 weeks, but this has been refuted by Lord Duncan of Springbank who has given a guarantee that "no abortions will be carried out over 24 weeks".
Speaking in the House of Lords in July, the NIO minister said: "After the new regime, we would not introduce legislation that allowed later abortions than are taken in England or Wales. We would seek harmony."
A 12-week consultation is due to be launched before the end of the year which will decide how the service should be rolled out from March 31 next year.
In the interim, doctors will be able to prescribe abortion medication or carry out terminations, in line with their abilities and adhering to guidance from their professional body, but it is thought the majority of women will travel to England until a formal service is established in April next year.
Health professionals can also opt out of providing the service and in this situation they can refer their patient to an alternative service or give contact details for a central booking system which will provide support, counselling and advice about terminations.