As the British Parliament’s permissive abortion law takes effect in Northern Ireland, pro-life leaders strongly criticised the law, pointing to the coronavirus response as proof of the need to protect the lives of the most vulnerable.
“Every unborn baby matters regardless of age or ability, gender or background. He or she has the right to be protected in a community where everyone belongs and deserves our respect,” the Catholic bishops of Northern Ireland said on March 31. “Every woman faced with an unplanned pregnancy matters too. She has a right to be cared for within a community where she is protected from any pressure to abort her baby.”
“As the number of deaths caused by Coronavirus continues to rise, news reporters frequently remind us that behind the statistics are real people. Their lives matter regardless of age or ability, gender or background,” said the bishops, noting the heavy government investment in treating patients and protecting medical staff.
“Against this background, we are saddened and dismayed at the Government’s decision to introduce extreme regulations for the delivery of abortion services in Northern Ireland,” they said, citing an “overwhelming will” among the people of the region to “protect the life of every human being.’
Previously, Northern Ireland’s laws only permitted abortion in cases where a woman’s life is at risk, or where there is a permanent or serious risk to her mental or physical health. Backers of the law said it had saved over 100,000 lives by avoiding the permissive law that took effect in other parts of the United Kingdom in 1967.
The new law and accompanying regulations took effect on March 31. They mean no explicit legal protections for unborn children up to 12 weeks into pregnancy, compared to legal abortion allowed up to 24 weeks in other parts of the UK. In some respects, the law is more permissive than the rest of the UK.
Doctors, registered nurses, and registered midwives may perform abortions under the rules. In situations where pregnancy is believed to risk a woman’s physical or mental health, abortion is legal up to 24 weeks. There is no time limit where the pregnancy is deemed a risk to the life of the mother or in cases where the unborn child is deemed to have a fatal abnormality or a substantial risk of severe mental or physical impairment.
The Northern Ireland pro-life group Precious Life has focused on the responses to the government’s late 2019 consultation on the new abortion law. About 79 per cent of respondents voiced opposition to any abortion in Northern Ireland.
Bernadette Smyth, director of Precious Life, said, “thousands of pro-life people throughout Northern Ireland responded in total opposition to a change in the law.”
“Yet, we have seen this week, that the UK Government are willing to ignore the results of its own consultation because they are so bloodthirsty and devoted to destroying and killing human lives through abortion in Northern Ireland, even at a time of unprecedented national crisis,” Smyth continued. “People are outraged, upset and hugely frustrated that their democratic voice has been ignored.”
“It is horrifying to learn that one of the most permissive, extreme and inhumane abortion regimes in Europe will be introduced to Northern Ireland by the British Government,” she said. “This is in spite of the fact that our elected representatives returned to Stormont in January and at a time when the UK has been brought to its knees by the Coronavirus pandemic.”
“And right in the middle of a national crisis, when people in Northern Ireland and across the world are uniting under the shared understanding that all human life is precious and must be protected, the British Government are still intent on killing and destroying innocent and vulnerable human life in Northern Ireland,” she said.
The Catholic bishops too said the consultation process had been “utterly ignored.”
While Precious Life is circulating petitions asking legislators to repeal the abortion provisions, the bishops said members of the Northern Ireland assembly have some influence. However, their remarks suggested repeal would be very difficult.
Politicians and others opposed to the regulations should not “meekly acquiesce to their promulgation,” they said. Where the regulations exceed the 2019 Act of Parliament, legislators can repeal them.
The traditionally Protestant and pro-UK Democratic Unionist Party also criticised the new abortion law.
Paul Givan, DUP Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly said they were “the most extreme, radical, abortion laws anywhere in Europe.”
“It is a travesty that this has been allowed to happen,” he said, objecting that the laws were introduced despite the return of devolved government to Stormont.
While abortion is typically a devolved issue of local control, the British Parliament legislation was passed during an absence of a local government. The parties of the Northern Ireland Assembly could have blocked the law from taking effect, but failed to reach any governing agreement due to a dispute between the two leading governing parties, the DUP and the second-largest party, the nationalist Sinn Fein. The nationalist Social Democratic Labour Party also walked out of a final critical meeting.
Besides the Catholic bishops, leaders in the Church of Ireland, the Methodist Church in Ireland, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, and the Irish Council of Churches had called on the Northern Ireland Assembly to reconvene to block the abortion legislation.
The nationalist parties traditionally draw support from Northern Ireland’s Catholics. Sinn Fein has turned towards backing legal abortion, while some SDLP leaders have made comments welcoming the changes.
Caoimhe Archibald, a Sinn Féin MLA, said it was “only right and proper that woman can access abortion services without having to travel, that they are free to be able to have healthcare in a modern and compassionate way”.
Among the nationalist critics of the new regime is Peadar Tóibín, leader of the new political party Aontú.
“The right to life is a human right. It is the most important human right that any one of us have. Without the right to life no other human right can be guaranteed,” he said on April 1.
“The current crisis has seen society radically change its behaviour, to protect the lives of the most vulnerable. This is something that we in Aontú have always understood,” he said. Sometimes we all have to limit our personal choice and autonomy to protect the lives of others. The slogan ‘my body, my choice’ rings particularly hollow now when we realise that in reality we are all in this together.”
Tóibín cited the Sinn Féin Mayor of Belfast’s statement in response to the coronavirus pandemic that “Every Life Matters.”
“The hypocrisy is breathtaking,” he said. “The abortion law that Sinn Féin helped introduce will directly end thousands of live.”
Tóibín was deputy whip of Sinn Fein’s delegation to the Republic of Ireland legislative body known as the Dail, and still holds a seat in that body. However, he was pushed out from the party over his support for the unborn and opposition to legal abortion. Like the nationalist party Sinn Fein, Aontú competes in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom.
He charged that the Westminster-based Parliament, Sinn Féin and the SDLP leadership had “forced abortion on demand into the north of Ireland against the wishes of the people.”
“I say forced, because every opinion poll in the north stated that the majority of men and women sought that the issue of abortion would be decided, not in London but in the north of Ireland. It was not just public opinion that held this view. Legally it was a devolved matter. It was for the elected representatives of the north to decide,” he said.
He objected that Sinn Féin had rejected its nationalist stand against British legislation in Ireland and had instead “openly lobbied for Westminster to legislate for abortion on demand in the north.”
“For the first time in 200 years of republicanism, its leadership went cap in hand to London and demanded that it legislate for Ireland over the heads and against the will of the people,” he charged.
Across all Ireland, pro-life advocates have voiced concern about possible changes to government policy to allow at-home abortions using abortion pills during the coronavirus pandemic.
Pressure to legalise abortion in Northern Ireland increased after a 2018 referendum effectively legalised abortion in the Republic of Ireland by a vote of over 66 per cent in favour of removing constitutional protections recognizing the unborn baby’s right to life as equal to the mother’s.
The new law also requires the recognition of same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland.
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