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NI’s First and Deputy First Ministers divided over new abortion regulations

The regulations were laid down by the Northern Ireland Office on Wednesday.

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Pro Choice activists in the grounds of Stormont (Niall Carson/PA)

Pro Choice activists in the grounds of Stormont (Niall Carson/PA)

Pro Choice activists in the grounds of Stormont (Niall Carson/PA)

Northern Ireland’s First and Deputy First Minister have expressed opposing views on newly published regulations for abortion services.

The regulations were laid by the UK Government on Wednesday, after a landmark law change last October following a private member’s bill at Westminster which decriminalised abortion in the region.

First Minister Arlene Foster described it as a “very sad day for Northern Ireland”, while Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill “welcomed progress”.

From March 31, the regulations will allow abortion on request for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy and abortion up to 24 weeks on the grounds that continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman or girl.

Abortion will also be available in cases of severe and fatal foetal anomalies, with no gestational limit.

Mrs Foster said she believes Stormont should have dealt with the matter.

“I have to say I fundamentally reject that Westminster have brought these forward today, it should have been this place (Stormont) that dealt with those issues,” she said.

“We have a devolved administration, it should have been the devolved administration that dealt with those issues.”

But Ms O’Neill said the legislation was “out of date” and had “failed women on many, many fronts”.

Abortion laws demonstration
Anti-abortion protesters stage a silent demonstration at Stormont (Brian Lawless/PA)

“I am glad to see progress on the guidelines in making sure it is very clear that we support women who find themselves in very vulnerable situations when they need our health service to support them,” she said.

Earlier, Amnesty International welcomed the regulations, but warned that they will fail to keep women safe during the current health emergency.

Grainne Teggart, Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland campaign manager, expressed concern that the guidelines do not permit women to take both abortion pills at home, during a time when Government advice has been against travel to stop the spread of Covid-19.

“The Government’s decision not to allow women to self-manage abortions at home during the current health crisis is dangerous and puts women at risk,” she said.

“Travel for this healthcare is neither a safe nor viable option at the moment and government should be doing what it can to help women in the safety of their home.”

Anti-abortion campaigners have called the regulations the “wrong course for Northern Ireland”.

The fact the Northern Ireland Office is proposing a more liberalised law on abortion than the one currently in place in Great Britain adds insult to injuryCare NI chief executive, Nola Leach

Care NI chief executive, Nola Leach, said it was a “deeply sad day” for Northern Ireland, adding there will be “considerable anger” at the framework.

“The fact the Northern Ireland Office is proposing a more liberalised law on abortion than the one currently in place in Great Britain adds insult to injury,” she said.

“The reality is that Westminster should never have acted to override the devolved Assembly on this issue.

“Elected representatives from NI have been ignored and the voices of thousands of individuals have simply been set aside.

“The NIO has also clearly ignored the fact that the overwhelming majority of those who responded to the public consultation on the new framework were completely opposed.

“We understand the magnitude and scale of the crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic in Northern Ireland and beyond. We also recognise Assembly members are understandably focusing on this issue at the current time.

“At Care NI, we believe both lives matter and that ultimately, the new abortion services being proposed will harm, not help, women and babies.”

PA