Last week, Paul Givan MLA, introduced his Severe Foetal Impairment Abortion (Amendment) Bill, onto the floor of the Assembly. It is a Bill which should be supported by all those who care about the disabled in our society and strive to create a better rights-based culture for them. The bill aims to prohibit abortion on the grounds of serious disability, such as Down’s syndrome.
Under legislation imposed on Northern Ireland by Westminster during the dying days of the previous Parliament, abortion is legally permitted in certain circumstances here. One of those circumstances, which the Bill attempts to address, is Regulation 7 (1) (b), which egregiously permits abortion up to term, in cases of “severe foetal impairment where if the baby were born, it would suffer from such physical or mental impairment as to be seriously disabled”.
It should be borne in mind, that this Bill does not seek to amend the abortion law, which permits abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality.
Previously in June 2020 the Assembly debated a DUP motion, that focussed on the same issue of Regulation 7.
The Assembly voted 46 to 40 in favour of rejecting this provision in the Abortion Regulations. The motion received support right across the parties in the Assembly with the exception of Sinn Fein, who strangely tabled their own amendment, which in substance actually agreed with the DUP motion. In other words, there was widespread cross-party agreement, that Regulation 7 went too far in permitting the abortion of a seriously disabled child right up to birth.
Although Sinn Fein have not yet made their party position public, it would be surprising given their attitude in the June 2020 debate, if they were not to support Paul Givan’s amendment.
Apart from a few mavericks in the main parties, it was only the Greens and People before Profit MLAs, that supported the retention of this horrific discriminatory legislation against unborn disabled babies.
Leaving aside the barbaric nature of Regulation 7, which many ordinary people find abhorrent, there are compelling human rights reasons under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, for removing this provision.
As the late Lord Kerr, highlighted in his judgment in the 2018 Supreme Court case on abortion law in Northern Ireland, the Assembly is forbidden by the Northern Ireland Act 1998, to make laws contrary to the UN Convention on the Disabled.
He went on to say: “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 referred to this as “a weighty factor to place in the balance and one not present in cases of Fatal Foetal Abnormality, rape or incest.”
Lord Kerr also pointedly referred to the committee, that monitors compliance with the UN Convention and “their consistent criticism of any measure, which provided for abortion in a way that distinguishes between the unborn on the basis of physical or mental disability”.
The UN Committee on the Convention has continued to be critical of the current abortion law in Britain, as it applies to the unborn disabled child. This monitoring committee, that assesses compliance, has recommended that the UK ‘s laws on abortion be amended “without legalising selective abortion on the grounds of foetal deficiency”.
There is little doubt that under the Convention that Regulation 7, undemocratically imposed upon us by Westminster, is incompatible with the UN Convention, which is judiciable under our own domestic law. MPs both here and in Britain, were forewarned at the time of the passage of the Westminster legislation about this potential incompatibility.
Paul Givan’s amendment gives the Assembly the opportunity to remove this discriminatory provision against the unborn disabled child and bring our law into line with the UN Convention. This sensitive matter of abortion law is now exclusively a matter for our local legislature, as has long been established by the European Court in its case law.
You do not have to be pro-life to support this amending legislation. Those, who are pro-abortion, can without prejudice to their deeply held position, support this Bill and also oppose this discriminatory regulation.
This is a humane and reasonable amendment, that gives due recognition to the human rights of the disabled in our community. For the time being the overall issue of abortion still remains to be addressed.
I doubt if Paul Givan would want to be compared to the conscience-stricken Sir Thomas More in his struggle with Henry VIII, but he might agree with him whenever he said: “What you cannot make good, make it as little bad as possible.”