In Northern Ireland in the last few years there have been a number of very sensitive cases about women whose babies have received a diagnosis of ‘fatal foetal abnormality’ and who travelled to England to obtain an abortion. The stress of travel, in addition to the trauma already being suffered by these women, has been the focus of media reports and has led to pressure for the law to change to allow abortion in Northern Ireland specifically for these cases.
In early 2014 the Department of Justice (DOJ) in Northern Ireland consulted on changing the law around abortion. Following the consultation, the Justice Minister recommended a change in the law to allow abortion in case of ‘lethal foetal abnormality’ but not sexual crime. This was despite the majority of respondents opposing changes to the law. No legislation was brought forward before the end of the last Assembly term.
In 2015, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) launched a legal case against the Department of Justice because they believed the law in Northern Ireland was incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). In November 2015, Justice Horner delivered his opinion in the NIHRC case. He ruled that the law in Northern Ireland was ‘incompatible’ with the ECHR regarding abortion relating to ‘fatal foetal abnormality and sexual crime’. The Attorney General and the Department of Justice are currently appealing this decision. Part of this appeal is based on the premise that allowing terminations in such cases discriminates against children with disabilities, based on the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Judge Horner did note in his initial judgement that “the thin end of the wedge or slippery slope argument also cannot be ignored”. He was referring to the fact that if the trauma and stress of travel is the basis of legal change here, then an argument could be made for abortion, for any reason here.
In February 2016, Amendments to the Justice Bill were proposed by members of the Alliance Party, NI21 and the Green Party, to change the law to allow abortion in Northern Ireland on the grounds of ‘lethal foetal abnormality’ and ‘sexual crime’ and to introduce a statutory conscientious objection clause. Although the Assembly voted against these changes, the First Minister asked the then Health Minister to set up an Assembly Working Group to examine the issue of ‘fatal foetal abnormalities’. This group first met in July 2016 and has reported to both the Ministers of Health and Justice who have confirmed that any recommendations will only be taken forward with Executive approval. You can find out how your local MLAs voted here and contact them to advocate for the protection of both lives and better care services for women, unborn children and their families.
In addition there have been a number of cases in the last few years which feature the taking of illegal abortion pills which have been bought online. These cases are very sensitive and have led to calls for decriminalisation of abortion.
Many of those who advocate what they see as minor changes in the law share our starting point of compassion. Our hearts break with women and families when they receive the news that their unborn baby has a life-limiting diagnosis. However we are not led to abortion as the answer. We think the law currently strikes the right balance which preserves the life, health and dignity of women and unborn children as far as possible. We stand in solidarity with women, unborn children and their families in these circumstances and are pro-actively advocating for better support services.
We think it’s important that people understand that many of those involved in campaigning for law reform in these hard cases are also seeking much wider legal change. Some have called for the 1967 Abortion Act to be extended to cover Northern Ireland while others want abortions to be available on demand. In fact, right across the UK, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) and, ironically, the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) are advocating for the decriminalisation of abortion in any circumstances.
I never envisaged there would be so many abortions- Lord David Steel, architect of the 1967 Act