UK Government pushes ahead with unpopular Northern Ireland abortion reforms

(Photo: Unsplash/Carlo Navarro)

The Government is pressing ahead with changes to Northern Ireland's abortion laws despite calls to give lawmakers more time to consider the plans.

The NI Affairs Committee had requested that it be consulted on the changes first in light of emergency procedures being used to 'fast-track' legislation through Parliament because of Brexit. 

The fast-tracking procedures mean that instead of legislation being debated over months before a final vote, the process is condensed into a few days. 

On Friday, the Northern Ireland Office told the NI Affairs Committee that there were "unavoidable timeframes", the BBC reports. 

At present, abortion is only permitted in Northern Ireland in very exceptional circumstances, when there is deemed to be a serious risk to the mother's mental or physical health. 

Earlier this year, MPs in Westminster passed an amendment that will decriminalise abortion in Northern Ireland and make its abortion laws the most liberal in the UK, allowing pregnancies to be terminated as late as 28 weeks in any circumstance. 

The changes are due to come into effect on October 22 unless Stormont, which has been suspended for two years, is restored. 

The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) said the changes were "extreme".  It is asking pro-lifers to contact their MPs ahead of a debate on the changes in the House of Commons on Monday.

The report by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland states that the Government recognises "the strength of feeling on the issues of abortion law reform". 

"The Government's preference therefore remains that any change to law on abortion, a sensitive devolved issue, is taken forward by a restored Executive and functioning Assembly," it reads.

"It remains the hope that devolved government can be restored at the earliest opportunity through the current talks process."

It added: "Ensuring the health and safety of women, and clarity for medical professionals, will be at the forefront of our approach at each stage of the process." 

SPUC criticised the Government's failure to hold a public consultation on the changes and give consideration to the views of Northern Irish MPs who voted against the MPs, as well as Stormont representatives who in 2016 voted against any change to the province's abortion laws.

Liam Gibson, SPUC's Northern Ireland Political Officer, said: "This long-standing legal protection of the unborn has been undone by fiat from Westminster, despite the opposition of all of the Northern Ireland MPs who take their seats."

On Friday, thousands gathered in front of Stormont to take part in a silent walk of protest against the new law. 

Organiser Sarah Crutchley said there was "a lot of frustration" among people in Northern Ireland who feel that the law is being "imposed" on them. 

"Those in Westminster who are trying to impose this legislation haven't considered the unborn children who cannot speak," she said.

Christian campaign group CARE NI was also at the protest. Director Tim Martin said: "There is real anger and unrest here about how Westminster has imposed such profound social changes on Northern Ireland without any consultation.

"Our current law on abortion is a life-affirming one and we believe it sends a positive message that both the lives of mothers and babies matter."