Pro-life advocates are gearing up to challenge attempts by the British Parliament to impose drastic changes on Northern Ireland’s abortion policies.
The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children has announced a legal action against the UK government’s grant of wide-ranging powers to Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis to implement “fully-funded abortion service” in Northern Ireland.
SPUC spokesman Liam Gibson denounced the move as “a disgraceful power grab by the Westminster Government.” He said, “If allowed to stand it will not only condemn to death an untold number of unborn babies but fatally undermine the devolution settlement as well.”
At stake in the legal battle is the question of how Northern Ireland will implement new abortion laws.
Together with the Centre for Bioethical Reform Northern Ireland, SPUC argues that the abortion regulations are contrary to the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, which does not give the Secretary of State the power to overturn standing abortion regulations.
“Put very simply, the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which enshrines the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, is a constitutional statute and is not subject to implied amendment or repeal,” said Gibson in response to questions from the Catholic Herald.
Responding by email, he explained the specific grounds of the legal challenge: “Section 9 of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Act 2020 does not give the Secretary of State the power to amend or bypass the 1998 Act but that, effectively, is what the recent Abortion Regulations attempts to do by permitting Brandon Lewis the authority to override the Northern Ireland Executive as established by the 1998 Act. These Regulations are, therefore, invalid and the actions taken by Mr Lewis will be unlawful.”
Already in 2019, the British Parliament repealed sections of Northern Ireland’s law pertaining to abortion and required the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to implement recommendations from the UN’s 2018 CEDAW act, which called for the advancement of a broad pro-abortion agenda, including decriminalising abortion, providing access to “safe” abortions, and government funding for abortions.
Abortion laws in Northern Ireland formally changed on 25 March 2020. The changes essentially provided for abortion on demand through the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, while allowing abortion beyond that time when there is risk to a woman’s physical or mental health, in cases of rape or incest, or in the presence of fatal abnormalities in the unborn child.
Attempts to provide funding for abortions and formalise the new abortion regulations have stalled in the province’s devolved legislature, the Northern Ireland Assembly, also known as Stormont. In March, the UK Parliament at Westminster gave Mr Lewis new powers to implement the recommendations of the CEDAW Report, without awaiting a decision from Stormont.
“By seizing the power over our abortion laws, London is stripping locally elected Ministers of power and have denied the people an accountable government with a democratic mandate,” said Mr Gibson in his statement. “The politicians making the decisions about our abortion laws,” he argued, “must be accountable to the people of Northern Ireland.”
SPUC says the initial funding for the £100,000 legal action will come from its budget for work in NI for the current financial year.
They say they will seek additional funds from supporters not only in Northern Ireland, but throughout Britain. “Northern Ireland’s population is too small to provide all the funding we need,” Mr Gibson told the Herald, “but in the fight to keep abortion on demand out of Northern Ireland, our grassroots supporters in Britain have always responded with incredible generosity.”
Asked about a projected timeline, Mr Gibson said he expects application for judicial review to be submitted to court by the end of this week “If there are no unexpected hold-ups,” he said, “then a leave hearing could take place before the courts rise for the summer around June/July,” and the case could be heard in October or November. “It deals with complex areas of law,” Mr Gibson explained, “so the judge may take his time to consider the issue,” and a a ruling might only come some months later.