Change to NI abortion laws will lead to 'complete and total legal chaos'

(Photo: Unsplash/Picsea)

Pro-life MPs have challenged drastic changes to Northern Ireland's abortion laws that have been met with strong opposition in the province.

On the tumultuous last day of business before Parliament was suspended, MPs debated the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019, parts of which will radically alter the region's abortion laws by decriminalising the procedure and making it possible for terminations up to 28 weeks.

The changes are due to come into effect on October 22 unless the Stormont Executive, which has been suspended for the last two years, reconvenes.

Addressing the Commons on Monday, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Julian Smith, said that the Government had a "duty to make the necessary regulations" in the face of the ongoing suspension of Stormont.

He admitted that if the Executive failed to meet by October 21, the law criminalising abortion in Northern Ireland would "fall away" in favour of a criminal moritorium until the end of next March.

"As I have set out, it is the Government's preference that any questions of reform on these important, sensitive and devolved issues are considered in the right place by a restored Executive and a functioning Assembly," he said.

"However, we recognise that a majority of MPs want to ensure that reform happens if we continue to see an absence of devolved government. From 22 October, the specific criminal law in Northern Ireland will fall away, and a criminal moratorium on prosecutions will come into place.

"I have instructed my Department, working closely with the Department of Health and Social Care and the Government Equalities Office to develop an appropriate new legal framework that will be in operation by 31 March 2020 if that proves to be the case."

The comments were met with anger from DUP member Ian Paisley Jr, who said the moratorium would result in an "anything goes" attitude towards abortion.

"Does the Secretary of State realise that the legacy of what he has announced is complete and total legal chaos from 21 October to March next year?" he said.

"There will be no regulatory framework in place, and anything goes when it comes to the termination of the lives of innocent children. Is that the legacy that he wants? Is that the blood on the hands that he wants?"

Conservative MP Fiona Bruce also voiced alarm over the prospect of no legal protections for the unborn.

"The people of Northern Ireland will find themselves in a situation where the provision of abortion, from conception up until the point of viability, which could be as far as 28 weeks, will take place in a complete legal vacuum from 22 October, with no guarantee that anything will be put in place until 31 March 2020. That is unacceptable," she said.

"It means five months when there will, in effect, be no law regulating abortion at all in Northern Ireland—as I say, these are abortions taking place from conception until just before a baby is capable of being born alive. I said that we should not rush through this legislation when it was originally debated and now we see the results."

She added that the changes as they currently stand would also put pregnant women at risk.

"This country has all manner of statutory checks to protect women, including the need for clinics to be vetted and registered, none of which will exist in Northern Ireland," she said.

"How is that good for the health of women in Northern Ireland?"

Labour MP Stella Creasy also spoke during the debate to suggest that members of the public be excluded from any consultation on the implementation of the new laws.

"It is really important for this House to be clear that, just as we would not ask non-medical professionals to consult on how to conduct a vasectomy, we should not do so when it comes to an abortion," she said.

The debate followed a protest against the decriminalisation of abortion last Friday in which an estimated 20,000 people from across Northern Ireland made their opposition known by taking part in a silent march to Stormont.

Alithea Williams, campaigns and parliamentary research assistant at the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, said: "After ramming through this extreme abortion legislation against the express will of the elected representatives of Northern Ireland, Stella Creasy does not want the public to be consulted on so much as its implementation.

"What is she afraid of? Perhaps she is worried that public consultation will change the outcome, as happened with the Domestic Abuse bill, when SPUC supporters and others made so many submissions that abortion was left out of it entirely. The huge crowds that gathered in Belfast over the weekend protesting this disgraceful act show that she does indeed have something to fear from consulting the people of Northern Ireland on their own abortion laws."