NORTHERN IRELAND – Bill to stop abortions for non-fatal disabilities voted down: a major victory

Infographic, Derry Alliance for Choice, 4-1-22

A Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) bill to stop abortions in Northern Ireland (NI) in cases of non-fatal fetal anomalies fell after a tight vote at Stormont, the NI Assembly. Assembly members voted 45 to 42 to reject the bill after its consideration stage debate.

Those who voted against included the members of Sinn Féin, some Social Democratic Labour Party members, and Alliance, Ulster Unionist and Green members, and People Before Profit members.

Northern Ireland’s abortion laws changed significantly in 2020 following legislation passed at the UK Parliament in Westminster. This meant there would be no time limit for terminations when there was a substantial risk a fetus would suffer severe mental or physical impairment. Anti-abortion campaigners had argued the new law would allow abortions without a time limit for conditions such as Down’s syndrome, while the DUP claimed its bill aimed to remove discrimination against people with disabilities. Opponents of the bill and pro-choice campaigners said it was an attempt to erode women’s reproductive rights.

Speaking during the debate, Sinn Féin vice president Michelle O’Neill MLA said: “We have had enough of women needing abortions being exiled abroad or taking abortion pills, often alone and afraid, without medical supervision.” She added that it “reflects badly on everyone” that women still have to make such journeys in 2021. “Westminster had to legislate for abortion services in the North because of the blockages created by the DUP, the very same people attempting to roll back on the progress made.”

People Before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll, who led off on the opposition to the bill in the chamber, said after the vote: “I am beyond delighted that the DUP’s attempt to restrict abortion in some of the most tragic cases has been defeated. I want to pay tribute to the mammoth effort of women and pro-choice activists who built massive pressure on Sinn Féin to change their position and oppose the bill – this is people power in action.”

Alliance MLA Paula Bradshaw said it was a remarkable day and a “significant day for trusting women”. “This is the first time the devolved legislature in Northern Ireland has voted clearly in favour of the woman’s right to choose, recognising that pregnant women in conjunction with health professionals are the best people to determine whether and how to proceed with pregnancy,” she said.

The Green Party NI leader Clare Bailey also welcomed the result. “This bill sought to roll back on the hard-won rights of women in Northern Ireland. It was not compliant with human rights. It was right for the Assembly to ‘kill the bill’,” she said. “However, the NI Executive continues to fail in its duty to provide free, safe and legal reproductive healthcare for women in Northern Ireland.”

In July 2021, the Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis issued a formal direction that the NI government must commission full abortion services by March 2022. The Department of Health has said it is working to finalise proposals ahead of submitting them to the executive for approval.

SOURCE: BBC News NI, by Jayne McCormack, 14 December 2021