'These changes came in the most roughshod way, with complete contempt for the devolved Administration and the views of the people of Northern Ireland'
Carla Lockhart, a Member of Parliament for a Northern Irish constituency, has called for the British law dealing with abortion provision in the region to be repealed so that the local government can legislate on the topic.
“I want today to make the point to this House, on behalf of the many thousands of people across Northern Ireland who take a pro-life stance, that we want to repeal section 9 with immediate effect and allow for the Northern Ireland Assembly to debate, discuss and evidence-gather on this emotive issue,” Lockhart said during her maiden speech in the House of Commons in Westminster.
Lockhart, a member of the Democratic Unionist Party, was elected MP for Upper Bann in the 2019 UK general election on December 12.
Section 9 of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 decriminalised abortion in Northern Ireland and placed a moratorium on abortion-related criminal prosecutions, and obliges the UK government to create legal access to abortion in the region by March 31.
The legislation took effect in part because the Northern Ireland Assembly, which has been suspended nearly three years due to a dispute between the two major governing parties, was not able to convene for business by October 21, 2019.
The law has drawn some objections that it violates the letter or spirit of devolution agreements that grant the Northern Ireland Assembly power over important matters.
“It is imperative that I speak on this to attempt again to highlight the anger, disappointment and frustration concerning the change in abortion laws that have been foisted upon the people of Northern Ireland,” Lockhart stated. “These changes came in the most roughshod way, with complete contempt for the devolved Administration and the views of the people of Northern Ireland.”
She charged that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland “has not intervened to assist in our crumbling healthcare system, or to fairly reward our healthcare workers or to avert the mental health crisis we are facing. He hasn’t done that because, in his own words, he has said that these are ‘devolved issues’. Abortion was and should be a devolved matter, yet this House has imposed on Northern Ireland the most extreme measures of abortion anywhere across Europe.”
Some 9,000 Northern Irish healthcare workers are on strike over pay and staffing levels, according to the BBC.
Lockhart noted that Northern Ireland “has always supported life-affirming laws.” The region rejected the Abortion Act 1967 that legalized 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.
“The DUP are a pro-life party, but this actually crosses traditional boundaries and there is widespread cross-community support across Northern Ireland,” she maintained. “We have an evolving political landscape, and I say let the people of Northern Ireland have their say on this matter.”
Indeed, a draft deal to restore power-sharing at the Northern Ireland Assembly has been backed this week by both the DUP and Sinn Féin.
Lockhart stated: “I want a society in Northern Ireland that values life, and I want to see services that will help women choose life … help us create a culture of choosing life.” She asked for government provision of a perinatal palliative care centre, a maternal mental health unit, and better childcare services.
Prior to the NI EF Act 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.
The British government held a public consultation on a proposed framework for the legal provision of abortion in Northern Ireland in November and December 2019. It proposed that elective abortions be available up to 12 or 14 weeks gestation.
It also proposed that “the gestational time limit in circumstances where the continuance of the pregnancy would cause risk of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman or girl, or any existing children or her family, greater than the risk of terminating the pregnancy” be either 22 or 24 weeks. It notes that abortion under these circumstances is lawful in England and Wales up to 24 weeks, though “with advances in medicine and healthcare, it could be possible that a fetus having reached a gestation of 22 weeks (21 weeks + 6 days) is viable and thus capable of being born alive.”
In cases of fetal abnormality, the government proposed that abortion without time limit be available. It also proposed that abortion without time limit be allowed where there is risk to the life of the mother or it is necessary to prevent grave permanent injury to her physical or mental health.
Lockhart responded to the proposed framework saying that “it is incomprehensible that the Government, knowing that abortion was a devolved matter, has published consultation proposals to introduce changes which go far beyond what has actually been required by Parliament.”
She charged that “in Northern Ireland, abortion on request for any reason will be legalised to the point at which a baby is ‘capable of being born alive’.
“It is my understanding that no consultation will take place on the legislative text of the regulations,” Lockhart said. “With regard to abortion, it is well known that the detail of the text is crucial.”
She asked that MPs, at least, be consulted before the specific text of the regulations is drafted.
“If the Government wants to maintain any commitment to devolution, I would implore them to rethink their coach-and-horses approach to a life-and-death piece of legislation,” Lockhart concluded.
Following the Upper Bann MP’s speech, Catherine Robinson, a Right To Life UK spokesperson, commented: “We share in Ms Lockhart’s disappointment and frustration concerning the imposition of extreme abortion laws in Northern Ireland by a Government who claims to support the devolution settlement.”
“We will support Carla and other MPs in their efforts to hold the Government to account on their words in regard to devolution, as doing so will help protect the lives of unborn babies in Northern Ireland,” Robinson added.
The amendment to the NI EF Act obliging the government to provide for legal abortion in Northern Ireland was introduced by Stella Creasy, a Labour MP who represents a London constituency.
In October 2019, the High Court in Belfast had ruled that the region’s ban on the abortion of unborn children with fatal abnormalities violated the UK’s human rights commitments.
Northern Irish women have been able to procure free National Health Service abortions in England, Scotland, and Wales since November 2017.