Abortion law change proposal tabled at Stormont

David Young, PA

A legislative attempt to repeal an aspect of Northern Ireland’s recently liberalised abortion laws has been formally tabled at Stormont.

The Private Member’s Bill in the name of DUP MLA Paul Givan targets a specific provision within the region’s abortion regulations that allows terminations up to birth in cases of serious non-fatal disabilities.

The initial stage of a Bill’s journey through the Assembly is a short procedure involving the formal introduction of it to the House.

The first stage of Mr Givan’s Bill only lasted a number of minutes on Tuesday morning.

British Irish Parliamentary Assembly
DUP MLA Paul Givan (Niall Carson/PA)

Substantive debate on the proposal will take place at a later Assembly stage.

Northern Ireland’s previously restrictive abortion laws were changed by MPs at Westminster in 2019 at a time when the Stormont administration was collapsed.

The laws allow abortion in all circumstances up to 12 weeks. Terminations are permitted up to 24 weeks when there is a risk to the woman’s physical or mental health.

There is no time limit in cases of fatal foetal abnormality or when there has been a diagnosis of a serious physical or mental impairment that would cause a serious disability.

Abortions post 24 weeks in those circumstances are extremely rare.

During an Assembly debate last year, a majority of MLAs voted in opposition to the particular section of the law that allows late-stage abortions when severe disability has been diagnosed.

Mr Givan’s move is being backed by disability rights campaign group Don’t Screen Us Out, which claims the law is discriminatory and will allow abortions without time limit for conditions such as Down’s syndrome or cleft palate.

One high-profile activist involved in the campaign is Heidi Crowter, who has Down’s syndrome.

Ms Crowter is also taking a separate legal action against the UK Government against a similar element in the 1967 Abortion Act, which applies in Great Britain.

The Bill would not affect the provision within the law that permits abortions up to birth for fatal foetal abnormalities, where babies are not expected to survive outside the womb.

Raising a point of order after the Bill was introduced, Alliance MLA Paula Bradshaw said the Assembly faces an “unusual situation” because Mr Givan had only formally alerted members to the contents of the Bill less than 30 minutes before it was introduced.

Ms Bradshaw asked for assurances that MLAs would receive written evidence from the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission on the Bill before members were asked to scrutinise it.

Speaker Alex Maskey said there was “nothing unusual with the procedure”, highlighting that items of Assembly business are often tabled at short notice.

General Election 2015 campaign – April 16th
Paula Bradshaw asked for assurances that the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission would be asked to analyse the contents of the Bill (Brian Lawless/PA)

Mr Maskey said the commission would have the opportunity to submit its own evidence on the Bill.

“This Bill has now had the first stage tabled here this morning. The Bill will be printed and it will go through the normal process through the business committee as an ongoing process by which legislation is always proceeded,” he said.

“I will ensure that the legislation will be governed and processed and managed properly in my role as Speaker.”

Mr Givan’s Bill represents the first legislative attempt since devolution was restored in Northern Ireland to amend the abortion laws introduced by the UK Government.

Ahead of introducing the proposed legislative change, the DUP politician said: “The current law tells those with disabilities that they are worth less than other people, their contribution is less valuable, their lives less important, less full.

“It invites us to view those with disabilities as less deserving of the protection of the law.

“The idea that Down’s syndrome is some huge problem that should be addressed by abortion is chilling. You don’t have to look far to see the full lives those with disabilities lead – they enrich our communities and families.”

Belfast mother Laura Denny, whose son Nathan has Down’s syndrome, is also supporting the law change.

“It wasn’t until my son Nathan was in my arms that I realised I had a baby and not just a diagnosis,” she said.

The Bill is seeking to amend Section 7 of the Abortion (Northern Ireland) (No 2) Regulations 2020.

If a majority of MLAs support the Bill at its second reading, it will be handed to an Assembly committee to scrutinise the proposed law change.

Votes cast in an Assembly debate on the new abortion regulations last year suggest there could be cross-party support for the move.

A DUP motion that rejected the new regulations in their entirety, with a particular focus on the provision that permits abortions up to birth in cases of severe disability, passed by 46 votes to 40.

While Sinn Fein opposed that motion, the party did table an amendment that also called for the rejection of the non-fatal disability regulation, though without any demand for the broader abortion reforms to be axed. That amendment was defeated by 52 votes to 32.

Sinn Fein’s party position is for alignment of abortion laws across the island of Ireland and in the Irish Republic there is no similar provision permitting abortions up to term in cases of serious non-fatal disabilities.

Factoring in the three MLAs who supported both the DUP motion and Sinn Fein amendment, that adds up to 75 of Stormont’s 90 MLAs who registered opposition to the section of law that is the subject of Mr Givan’s Bill.

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