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Peers overwhelmingly back new abortion rules for Northern Ireland

An earlier a bid in the House of Lords for the measures to be rejected was heavily defeated.

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Campaigners outside Stormont in Belfast (Niall Carson/PA)

Campaigners outside Stormont in Belfast (Niall Carson/PA)

Campaigners outside Stormont in Belfast (Niall Carson/PA)

Peers at Westminster have overwhelmingly backed abortion regulations for Northern Ireland despite opposition by the Stormont Assembly.

The House of Lords supported the provisions by 355 votes to 77, majority 278.

An earlier bid led by independent crossbencher Baroness O’Loan for the regulations to be rejected was heavily defeated by 388 votes to 112, majority 276.

Northern Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws were changed by MPs last year at a time when Stormont was collapsed.

However, earlier this month the now-sitting Assembly registered its opposition to the “imposition” of regulations by Westminster, which permit abortions up to birth in cases of severe non-fatal disability.

Outlining the measures, Tory frontbencher Viscount Younger of Leckie said: “The regulations provide the new legal framework for access to abortion services in Northern Ireland and ensure ongoing legal certainty.”

Prior to the changes, women and girls were forced to travel to England to access services or look to unsafe alternatives outside of the healthcare system, potentially putting themselves at risk, he said.

The essence of these regulations is to provide women and girls with the opportunity to be able to make individual informed decisions based on their own health and wider circumstancesViscount Younger of Leckie

Lord Younger added: “I recognise that this is an emotive issue and views on all sides of the debate are strongly held.

“These are extremely difficult and often distressing decisions for women and girls.

“However, the essence of these regulations is to provide women and girls with the opportunity to be able to make individual informed decisions based on their own health and wider circumstances.

“As a result of the absence of the Assembly and a functioning Executive, Parliament placed this duty on the Government to act to protect the human rights of women and girls.”

But opposing the regulations, Lady O’Loan said: “We now have a functioning Northern Ireland Assembly. Abortion is a devolved matter. The Assembly voted to reject these regulations on June 2.

“I ask you to listen to the people of Northern Ireland. Listen to our Assembly. Do not approve these regulations.”

She was supported by disabled Tory peer Lord Shinkwin, who argued the move “undeniably promotes and perpetuates disability discrimination”.

He questioned how “denying a human being diagnosed before birth with a non-fatal disability like mine the equal right to be born is somehow not less favourable treatment”.

The Bishop of Carlisle, the Rt Rev James Newcome, also opposed the measures.

He said: “If we approve these regulations we will be in the contradictory position of declaring on the one hand that people living with disability are valued, respected and cherished, but on the other that any disability… constitutes an automatic ground for termination.”

Former Ulster Unionist Party leader Lord Empey said: “Legislation should never have been allowed onto the statute book in the first place.”

He added: “Now that we have devolution it has been set aside.”

Democratic Unionist Party peer Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown said: “It was introduced wrongly in the first place and now to add insult to injury we have it in conflict with the democratic decision of the Northern Ireland Assembly.”

But Labour former Northern Ireland secretary Lord Hain said: “I am sorry but it’s no good some local assembly members complaining.

“While they squabbled, refusing to do their jobs and instead maintaining Stormont in ignominious suspension for three years, the world moved on without them.

“Women in Northern Ireland are now entitled to the same rights as women in all other parts of the United Kingdom and it is our statutory obligation to implement these regulations helping to set out the legal framework for services that will bring Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the UK.”

Labour peer Baroness Thornton said: “Abortion is legal in Northern Ireland. The regulations simply establish a framework for provision. Let’s move forwards not backwards.”

She argued the Stormont vote “signalled a desire to roll back the hard-won rights of women and girls in Northern Ireland”.

Tory former Northern Ireland minister Lord Duncan of Springbank said: “Having a thousand-plus women crossing the Irish Sea to come to England to have their rights exercised is not sensible nor is it fair. It is time to move on.”

For the Liberal Democrats, Lord Bruce of Bennachie backed the regulations, saying the women of Northern Ireland had been put under intense and unfair pressure.

The regulations were necessary to deliver a change in the law which the UK Parliament had voted for and the Northern Ireland Assembly had “abdicated responsibility” for in the three years it did not meet, he said.

Labour’s leader in the Lords, Baroness Smith of Basildon, also backed the regulations as providing clear guidance, which was of “paramount” importance to healthcare professionals in Northern Ireland.

PA