Bishops in Northern Ireland have spoken out against amendments to a bill in the British parliament that would liberalize abortion provision in the region, bypassing its self-governance.
Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh said July 6 that he is “deeply concerned by suggestions that amendments are being considered to the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill … which will hijack this Bill to remove existing legal protection for unborn babies and to ‘fast track’ the legalisation of abortion on demand in Northern Ireland. How tragic it is for humanity that some legislators would ‘fast track’ the ending of the lives of the most defenceless in our society.”
Abortion is legally permitted in Northern Ireland only if the mother’s life is at risk or if there is risk of permanent, serious damage to her mental or physical health. Elective abortion is legal in the rest of the United Kingdom up to 24 weeks.
British prime minister Theresa May has said abortion should be a devolved issue for Northern Ireland, but the Northern Ireland Assembly is currently suspended due to disagreements between the two major governing parties.
Archbishop Martin added that “it is urgent to restore an executive in Northern Ireland, so that the common good of all our people can be served. There is something particularly cynical, however, in taking advantage of the present political crisis to remove the right to life of the most vulnerable of our people; the unborn baby. The common good cannot be served in this way.”
“A legal framework for the protection of unborn human life is an important statement about the respect due to each and every child, and about the society in which we live,” he stated.
He asked that Catholics and other pro-life persons “contact Members of Parliament as a matter of urgency, requesting that he or she vote against any attempt to remove legal protection from unborn babies.”
Bishop Noel Treanor of Down and Connor urged similar action, asking July 6 that people contact their MP “to register their objection to this undemocratic process.”
“The protection of human life, inviolable from its conception until its natural end, is a matter of fundamental ethical and social ethical importance for citizens, society and the state,” he said, lamenting that the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill “is being used to introduce amendments aiming to liberalise provision of abortion in Northern Ireland without the say-so of either the citizens of Northern Ireland or their elected representatives.”
Bishop Treanor called the efforts an “eleventh hour initiative” to instrumentalize a bill meant “to put in place measures to accommodate the ongoing absence of a Northern Ireland Assembly. The issue of the protection of human life and the redefinition of marriage are not … devolved matters, which should be decided upon by the people of Northern Ireland.”
Since the bill is being considered by the British parliament, the English and Welsh bishops’ life issues spokesman, also encouraged citizens to speak out against it.
Bishop John Sherrington, Auxiliary Bishop of Westminster, said July 5 the bill’s effect in Northern Ireland “would be to provide for abortion on demand up to 28 weeks,” while in England and Wales “it would remove almost all of the existing legal safeguards surrounding abortion which limit abortion. Removing these is a step which I hope that legislators will not take.”
“Such a change would leave Northern Ireland with a significantly different abortion framework to the Republic of Ireland, where, following the recent referendum, there is a twelve week limit. It would also leave Northern Ireland, England and Wales with some of the most extreme abortion laws in the world, and more than twice the limit of most European countries,” Bishop Sherrington stated.
Right to Life UK has warned that amendments to the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill “would potentially lead to significant numbers coming across the border for abortions from the Republic of Ireland,” where abortion is not generally available after 12 weeks.
Clare McCarthy, a Right to Life UK spokesperson, said July 8 that Northern Ireland’s abortion law “should be a decision for the people of Northern Ireland and their elected representatives” and that it is “inappropriate to bring forward abortion amendment to a Bill which has nothing to do with abortion in any way.”
McCarthy noted that “100,000 people in Northern Ireland are alive today because Northern Ireland did not accept the same abortion law that was introduced into Britain in 1967.”
The Belfast Telegraph reported July 8 that Labour and Co-operative MP Stella Creasy, who represents a London constituency, had introduced amendments “seeking to extend abortion provision” in Northern Ireland.
Earlier this year Creasy intended to propose an amendment to a draft Domestic Abuse Bill that would give the British parliament jurisdiction over abortion laws throughout the United Kingdom. However, the bill’s scope was restricted to England and Wales by the Conservative government.
The Democratic Unionist Party, the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly and a member of the coalition government in Westminster, is opposed to changing the region’s abortion law.
Bills to legalize abortion in cases of fatal fetal abnormality, rape, or incest failed in the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2016.
Northern Irish women have been able to procure free National Health Service abortions in England, Scotland, and Wales since November 2017.
The region’s abortion law is also facing a legal challenge from Sarah Ewart, a Belfast woman who traveled to England in 2013 for an abortion after her doctors reportedly told her that her baby would not survive outside of the womb.
In June 2018, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission challenged the region’s abortion laws in the UK Supreme Court. While the Supreme Court concluded that Northern Ireland’s abortion laws violated human rights law by banning abortion in cases of fatal fetal abnormality, rape, and incest, it threw out the case saying it had not been brought forward by a person who had been wrongfully harmed by the law. It is expected that the court will consider Ewart to have standing to bring the case.
Other amendments to the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill would introduce same-sex marriage in the region; block a no-deal Brexit; and restrict prosecution of British soldiers for killings committed during the Troubles.