Bishops in Northern Ireland have strongly backed a call by a campaigner with Down syndrome to reject a law permitting abortion up to birth on grounds of disability.
The bishops spoke out ahead of a debate on the law which was imposed by authorities in Westminster on Northern Ireland.
The Northern Ireland Assembly will debate on Tuesday whether the practice of late-term abortion in the case of disability imposed by the Westminster parliament should be overturned, in response to an appeal from Heidi Crowter, a 24-year-old woman with Down syndrome who advocates for disability rights.
The motion up for debate is a proposal to reject “the imposition of abortion legislation which extends to all non-fatal disabilities, including Down’s syndrome.”
“As a person who has Down’s syndrome, I find this proposal for Northern Ireland deeply hurtful and offensive,” Crowter wrote in a letter to the legislative assembly.
“Please vote for this motion so the Northern Ireland Assembly can tell the world that you will not accept a law being passed that seeks to prevent people like me being born,” she stated, according to the Belfast Telegraph.
The Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2020, which came into force March 31, allow elective abortions up to 12 weeks of pregnancy; abortions up to 24 weeks in cases of risk to the mother’s physical or mental health; and abortion without time limit in cases of severe fetal impairment or fetal abnormality.
Since the imposition of the law more than 100 abortions took place in Northern Ireland in seven weeks. The Belfast Telegraph reported on June 2 that Health Minister Robin Swann cited 129 abortions in Northern Ireland between March 31 and May 22.
The bishops of Northern Ireland urged legislators to reject the Westminister abortion legislation, which they said was imposed “without the consent of the people of Northern Ireland.”
“Politicians and all people of good will, who recognize the extreme nature of the Regulations, should not meekly acquiesce to their promulgation,” the bishops wrote in a letter to legislators on June 1.
“While we regard this to be an unjust law, which was imposed without the consent of the people of Northern Ireland, we are morally obliged, wherever possible, to do all we can to save the lives of unborn children, which could be lost through abortion, and to protect mothers from the pressures they might experience at the time of an unplanned pregnancy,” the bishops said.
Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh spoke out on social media ahead of the assembly debate.
“Westminster abortion regulations are unjust, extreme and inhumane — much further than 1967 Abortion Act — imagine taking the life of an unborn child because the child has a cleft lip!” Martin wrote on Twitter on June 1.
1. Critical motion Tues on Abortion in NI Assembly. Contact your MLA’s to support the motion. Westminster abortion regulations are unjust, extreme and inhumane – much further than 1967 Abortion Act – imagine taking the life of an unborn child because the child has a cleft lip! pic.twitter.com/K8RBws7SWv
“Westminster abortion regulations offer no gestational limits for children with disabilities. Let’s take a stand for the equal right to life and care of all children, before and after birth, as well as their mothers. Contact your MLA’s. Ask them to defend life!” the archbishop wrote in another post.
In their letter, the Catholic bishops of Northern Ireland urged politicians to “take steps to formulate new Regulations that will reflect more fully the will of a significant majority of the people in this jurisdiction to protect the lives of mothers and their unborn children.”
The largest party in the assembly, by one member, is the Democratic Unionist Party, which has emerged as a leading pro-life party in the region. However, the unionist party has had links to the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster, an ecclesial community particularly hostile to the Catholic Church.
The next largest party is Sinn Féin, an Irish nationalist party that has historically enjoyed significant Catholic support. It supported the liberalisation of abortion laws in Northern Ireland imposed by the Westminster parliament, and its party members endorsed the repeal of the Republic of Ireland’s Eighth Amendment, which protected unborn children.
The remaining parties in the assembly allow their MLAs a conscience vote on abortion.
Previously, abortion was legally permitted in the region only if the mother’s life was at risk or if there was risk of long-term or permanent, serious damage to her mental or physical health.
Northern Irish women had been able to procure free National Health Service abortions in England, Scotland, and Wales since November 2017. They are allowed to travel to the rest of the UK to procure abortions during the coronavirus outbreak.
Though in England, Wales, and Scotland two medical professionals must certify in all cases that there were lawful grounds for abortion, in Northern Ireland under the new regulations only one medical professional is needed for certification in elective abortions or in cases of immediate necessity where there is a risk to the life of the mother.
Conscientious objection is allowed for direct participation in abortion, but not for ancillary, administrative, or managerial tasks associated with the procedure.
“Buffer zones” have been set up around locations where abortions are procured, barring protest in the locations’ immediate vicinity.
Northern Ireland rejected the Abortion Act 1967, which legalised abortion in England, Wales, and Scotland; and bills to legalise abortion in cases of fatal fetal abnormality, rape, or incest failed in the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2016.
Archbishop Martin, Bishop Noel Treanor of Down and Connor, Bishop Donal McKeown of Derry, Bishop Larry Duffy of Clogher, and Auxiliary Bishop Michael Router of Armagh all signed the letter.
The Catholic bishops of Northern Ireland recalled their “responsibility to do all we can to promote a culture of care and respect for life in our society.”
“This includes a responsibility to inform the conscience of all members of the Catholic Church and people of good will regarding the fundamental moral values at stake in the issue of abortion,” they said.