Belfast Telegraph

Alban Maginness: Health service professionals who object to taking part in abortions must be protected

If the new legislation is introduced here, a conscientious objection clause is required, argues Alban Maginness

Thousands protested in Northern Ireland against the proposed abortion law changes
Thousands protested in Northern Ireland against the proposed abortion law changes

The easiest thing to do when things become contentious in your working life is to keep your head down and your mouth shut. But remarkably last week, 815 doctors, nurses and midwives didn't do that, but sent a strongly worded letter of protest to Secretary of State Julian Smith expressing opposition to any change in the abortion legislation here. They are so incensed by the undemocratic imposition by Westminster of an extreme abortion regime on the health service in Northern Ireland that they had to speak out publicly.

This mass expression of concern by medical professionals chimes with the great unease among the public against this enormous change in the legal protections for the unborn.

Two weeks ago large public demonstrations of thousands of ordinary citizens - Protestant, Catholic, nationalists and unionists - also expressed their opposition to Westminster's unconstitutional move to legislate on a sensitive issue of social policy that clearly belongs to our devolved Assembly.

Even those who claimed that they wanted limited abortion law changes in the "hard cases" of incest, rape and fatal foetal abnormality must surely be horrified that this new law will permit unrestricted abortion up to seven months and in some circumstances even beyond that stage.

The recommendations of the report from the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), upon which this new law is specifically based, say that abortion should be unconditional and totally decriminalised. This is even worse than the 1967 Abortion Act in Britain. Sadly none of those who supported abortion on a restrictive basis have yet been brave enough to openly say what has been imposed upon us is not what they wanted.

One GP who has had the courage to put his head above the parapet and suffer the flak and ridicule of the pro-abortion lobby is Dr Andrew Cupples. He has warned the Government of a mass exodus of healthcare professionals if they have to assist in carrying out abortions. He and others, such as midwife Debbie Marshall, are seeking assurance that their conscientious objection to abortion is lawfully protected. Debbie Marshall, an experienced midwife, has said that if she had to assist in an abortion she would walk away from the profession she loves. The Royal College of GPs has emphasised that conscientious objection for healthcare staff must be protected.

In response the Department of Health has merely stated that it was "... liaising with the NIO officials on preparations, including guidance for health service professionals and the general public".

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Hardly a reassuring response from a department of Government that has been charged with implementing this legislation. Mere guidance for healthcare professionals falls very far short of legal protection for conscientious objectors.

However, it is clear that it is the NIO, not the local Department of Health, that is going to do the job of drafting the regulations that will accompany this primary legislation on abortion. There is no guarantee that a genuine public consultation will take place on these regulations. Indeed, Stella Creasy MP, the promoter of this extreme abortion law, demanded in Parliament that there be no general public consultation. So much for the pro-abortion lobby's sense of democracy.

But given the structure of section 9 of the NI (Executive Formation) Act, there will be no conscientious protection for medics in primary legislation, as there is within the 1967 Abortion Act. The 1967 Act established a conscientious objection provision for health workers.

However, even that legal protection is limited as it only protects professionals from having to participate in abortions at first-hand. It does not protect professionals who are one step removed from the abortion process because they are in supervisory or management positions. Those professionals are not fully protected, and in the Scottish Midwives case, as decided by the Supreme Court in 2014, they were denied lawful protection and thereby forced out of their jobs.

Therefore, the issue of protecting professional conscientious objection is far from being certain and there is every likelihood that any purported protections will be weak and inadequate.

Only the return of the Assembly before October 21 will prevent this regressive, anti-human rights abortion law coming into effect. Sadly for future unborn babies and their basic right to live, the likelihood of that happening is remote given the unyielding deadlock between the DUP and Sinn Fein over the question of an Irish Language Act.

Meanwhile, Sinn Fein can hypocritically wait for the clock to tick down to October 21, gleeful that the Brits have done their dirty work for them on abortion. The question now to be asked is whether an Irish Language Act being forced upon the DUP is more horrendous than the enforcement of an extreme abortion regime upon all the people of Northern Ireland?

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