Assembly vote a lost opportunity to reform existing legislation
The narrow defeat — by just two votes — of the Severe Foetal Impairment Abortion (Amendment) Bill in the Assembly last week was a lost opportunity for Northern Ireland to become a leader in these islands in defending the rights of the disabled.
The Bill — initially introduced to the Assembly by Paul Givan before he became First Minister — was aimed at defending the right of unborn disabled babies not to be terminated right up to 40 weeks.
This included those babies with Down’s syndrome, club foot, or cleft palate. Babies suffering from fatal foetal abnormality were exempted from the Bill altogether.
The legal basis underlying Givan’s Bill was the application to our domestic law of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
That convention is directly applicable to the law here under the Northern Ireland Act 1998. The Assembly is forbidden by the 1998 Act to legislate contrary to the UN convention.
The former Chief Justice, the late Lord Kerr, one of our finest legal minds, discussed this very point in his judgment in the 2018 Supreme Court case on abortion law here.
He stated: “The UN convention is based on the premise that, if abortion is permissible, there should be no discrimination on the basis that the foetus, because of a defect, will result in a child being born with a physical or mental disability.”
He emphasised that this was a weighty factor to place in the balance and one not present in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, rape, or incest.
Later in his judgment, he went on to refer to the UN committee that monitors compliance by countries with the UN convention.
He noted that the committee has been consistently critical of any measure which provided for abortion in a way that distinguishes between the unborn on the basis of physical, or mental, disability.
In this respect, the UN monitoring committee has continued to be critical of the current abortion law in Britain, as it applies to the unborn disabled child. It has, in fact, recommended that the UK’s laws on abortion be amended, “without legalising selective abortion on the grounds of foetal deficiency”.
This criticism of the current British law is equally applicable to the current Regulation 7, which is the real focus of Givan’s Bill.
Regulation 7 is part of the abortion law change that was undemocratically imposed by the Westminster Parliament on Northern Ireland during suspension.
If Givan’s Bill had become law, it would have removed this egregious, discriminatory provision against the unborn disabled child and made our law conform with the UN convention. This amendment would have given due recognition to the human rights of the unborn disabled baby.
This would have been a first in the UK and Ireland. The specific protection accorded to the unborn disabled baby would have been a proud moment for our Assembly.
Those who have railed against this Bill have done so because they are pro-abortion, a position which they are democratically entitled to hold.
The irony is that there was nothing in Givan’s Bill that would have undermined their deeply held belief in abortion. The Bill was, in fact, a very modest piece of amending legislation that did not seek to prevent abortion per se, despite spurious arguments to the contrary.
You didn’t need to be pro-life to have supported this amendment, for even those who supported abortion could have voted for this legislation in order to protect the interests of the unborn disabled baby. That would have been a progressive thing to do.
As Christopher Stalford MLA succinctly stated: “The current law, foisted upon us by Westminster, means that a baby with no disability can be aborted for any reason up to 24 weeks, but a baby with a disability can be aborted right up to 40 weeks.”
The Green Party leader, Clare Bailey, declared (wrongly in my view) that, “This Bill was not compliant with human rights.”
Sinn Fein leader Michelle O’Neill stated that the Bill was a “shameful” strategy to block abortion services. Any cursory examination of the Bill would clearly show that allegation to be baseless.
Dr David Bruce, the moderator of the Presbyterian Church, expressed disappointment at the vote: “That decision by MLAs sends a profound message to society about the value that is placed on all human life.”
He is right. The disturbing message from the Assembly is that the life of an unborn disabled baby has little value.