Belfast Telegraph

Martin O'Brien: The imposition of abortion on NI is an assault on democracy and an attack on the unborn

But who will stand along with the DUP to limit the law to some very particular circumstances, such as those in the heart-rending case of Sarah Ewart, asks Martin O'Brien

Sarah Ewart, who had to travel to England for an abortion six years ago due to a fatal foetal abnormality, outside the High Court with her mum Jane Christie after the judge ruled our strict abortion regime was incompatible with human rights legislation
Sarah Ewart, who had to travel to England for an abortion six years ago due to a fatal foetal abnormality, outside the High Court with her mum Jane Christie after the judge ruled our strict abortion regime was incompatible with human rights legislation
Baroness O'Loan

By Martin O'Brien

There must be something rotten in our body politic. There must be when, in a matter of a few months, from July to October, we suddenly moved from having one of the most restrictive abortion regimes in the world to one of the most liberal.

All this happened with breakneck speed and without any public consultation and without a single one of our locally based lawmakers in Westminster - MPs or peers - voting for it.

And despite the objections of thousands of people, who made their voice heard in public protests and in petitions to Parliament and to elected representatives.

It's still hard to take it in - but it's true.

We have moved from a situation where abortion was only permitted when the mother's life was in danger, or where there was a risk of permanent and serious damage to her mental or physical health, to a new, deeply disturbing dispensation where there is no explicit legal protection for unborn babies up to 28 weeks.

And it gets worse.

As pointed out by Baroness Nuala O'Loan and others - including Both Lives Matter, an organisation supported by members of all faiths and none in Northern Ireland - there is no specific protection for unborn babies with disabilities such as Down's syndrome, and no prohibition of abortion on grounds of the sex of a baby.

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Nobody with a spark of human decency wishes to see anyone unreasonably taken before the courts - especially a woman who has had to contend with the trauma of a crisis pregnancy.

However, there is something perverse when the decriminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland means the removal of "the current, effective protection against coercive abortion, including the practice of secretly slipping abortion pills into drinks", as stated in the petition spearheaded by Baroness O'Loan calling for the recall of the Assembly.

Abortion is, of course, arguably the most sensitive and difficult of issues to address, but it is one on which good people can have honestly held and very varying views.

So, wherever one stands, whether one regards abortion as always wrong, because it means the destruction of human life in the womb, or from the pro-choice standpoint (that, nonetheless, denies choice to the unborn human being), one must approach the issue with humility and with compassion.

And that should include showing understanding and empathy for legislators, who are called to exercise their conscience in such a contentious area where constituents hold deeply contrasting views.

The imposition of this abortion regime on Northern Ireland by Westminster is an assault on democracy in Northern Ireland, an attack on pro-life values that transcend our traditional divide and a grave violation of the principles of devolution and of subsidiarity.

The fact that the Good Friday Agreement institutions are still down after nearly three years and that many British MPs have lost patience with Stormont for its failure to "reform" abortion law, as urged by cheerleaders for abortion such as Amnesty International (how their founder must be turning in his grave), does not justify this denial of democracy to the people of Northern Ireland.

Frankly, abortion law in Northern Ireland is not Westminster's business under the devolution settlement. Abortion is a devolved matter and the place for the enactment of laws in relation to abortion is the Assembly in Stormont and nowhere else, with MLAs free to vote according to their conscience.

Of course, Westminster would not have taken this opportunistic and reckless initiative if our Assembly was functioning properly and the new abortion regime only kicked in on October 22, when Westminster's ordained deadline for the restoration of Stormont passed without an Executive being formed.

But we are where we are, so what is to be done about this egregious state of affairs?

The answer should lie in the Assembly - if only the DUP and Sinn Fein would show the statesmanship to get it back on track.

The Assembly did meet - exceptionally - on October 21, at the instigation of Baroness O'Loan and others, when the DUP, to their credit, in the person of Paul Givan MLA, tried to bring forward a Private Member's Bill to repeal Section 9, the part of the Executive Formation Act that deals with abortion. The proceedings were labelled a "political stunt" by most of the DUP's political opponents. No party, including the DUP, isn't up for stunts from time to time - just wait until the election campaign proper gets under way - but that is too harsh a judgment on this occasion.

The Catholic bishops spoke for many right across our divided land - including, let it be said, some supporters, or erstwhile supporters, of Sinn Fein and the SDLP - when they asserted it was "deeply offensive" to describe as "a stunt" the efforts of thousands of citizens from all sections of the community to make use of the democratic system "to address an issue of such fundamental importance".

That issue could have been addressed in a meaningful way had Mr Givan's Bill, designed to protect the unborn child, not been stopped in its tracks by the SDLP's decision not to assent to the election of a Speaker. So much for the SDLP's claim to be a pro-life party.

If they believed that the Assembly session was "a stunt", as they claimed, and felt they could not join forces with a DUP pro-life initiative, then they should have stayed out of the Chamber like Alliance and Sinn Fein, rather than attempting to virtue-signal pro-life voters by their attendance.

I am told by those close to the issue that the Assembly can act if and when it is restored to repeal, or significantly mitigate, this legislation imposed on us without our democratic consent.

However, it's thought that if the Assembly voted to rescind the Westminster legislation without offering alternative regulations, this would probably be subjected to a legal challenge by pro-abortion campaigners.

A source opines that the courts would then have to determine if this part of the UK is complying with international obligations such as human rights law.

It is considered questionable whether the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) report, on which the new abortion regime is based, places an obligation on the UK to comply.

It is expected that, when the Assembly is eventually restored, it will need to make new regulations on abortion, partly in response to the new law and partly in response to the High Court ruling in the Sarah Ewart case, I am told.

It will be interesting to see which parties will join the DUP - the only party apart from the TUV that appears to be actively and demonstrably pro-life - in limiting the law on abortion to very particular circumstances, such as those covered by that heart-rending Ewart case.

Martin O'Brien is a journalist, communications consultant and award-winning former BBC producer

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