Campaigners concerned by attempts to derail or delay momentous legislation to decriminalise abortion in Northern Ireland

Campaigners for abortion law reform in Northern Ireland have raised their concerns regarding potential amendments in the House of Lords today to the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill, which are aimed to derail or delay the Clause 9 as introduced by Stella Creasy MP.

An amendment to Clause 9 has been tabled by Lord Morrow and Baroness O’Loan, which would require the government to “consult individually with members of the Northern Ireland Assembly on the proposals” and that the regulations could only come in to effect with the agreement of a majority of MLAs.

Campaigners are also anticipating further amendments to be tabled today to amend the timetable for the Clause and delay implementation.

The House of Lords will today debate amendments to the Clause introduced by Stella Creasy MP to amend sections of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 to decriminalise abortion in Northern Ireland in line with the recommendations of the UN Committee for the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women. The Clause received overwhelming cross-party support in the Commons, with 332 MPs voting in favour and just 99 against. If this Clause comes in to effect, medical professionals will be able to provide abortion care in Northern Ireland, and women currently unable to access services who use abortion pills purchased online will no longer face prosecution.

Campaigners are calling on the Lords to support a revised amendment tabled today by Lord Dubs, Baroness Watkins, and Baroness Barker, supported by Stella Creasy, which has stated a completion date of 13th January – the same date that the amendment on equal marriage is expected to come in to effect. 

Advocates for the current amendment on abortion in Northern Ireland have learned that there are ongoing efforts to delay the delivery of this landmark change and are warning that any delay would force over 20 women a week to travel overseas for abortion care.  Any unnecessary delay would also put yet more women at risk of prosecution for using abortion medication purchased online, facing a maximum sentence of up to life in prison.

Stella Creasy MP, mover of the original amendment to include abortion in the Northern Ireland (Executive Functions) Bill said:

‘There are worrying signs the government is caving to pressure from the DUP to give the churches the right to decide whether women can have an abortion in Northern Ireland and using that as reason to delay the bill - it’s vital this legislation isn’t derailed in this way so that women in Northern Ireland can finally be treated as equals.’

Emma Campbell, Co-Chair of Alliance for Choice NI, said:

We are asking the Government to listen to the will of the House of Commons and deliver these essential abortion rights to women in Northern Ireland on the same day as equal marriage in January. 

This is an urgent matter of human rights. Westminster has clear instructions and the mandate to remove criminal sanctions for abortions in Northern Ireland.

We urge the government to fulfil its duty, as called on by UN Committee for the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women, UN Committee Against Torture, and comments from UK Supreme Court judges. The Government should not stall any longer, we’ve waited too long already.”

Katherine O’Brien from the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, bpas, said:

“Decriminalising abortion would be a momentous step forward for the women and girls of Northern Ireland. It will enable clinicians to provide safe, woman-centred abortion services, which would be regulated to the same high standards as all other medical procedures in the UK, meaning that women are no longer forced to travel overseas for essential healthcare. It will also protect vulnerable women who use abortion medication purchased online and are currently at risk of up to life imprisonment.

We call on all MPs and Lords to continue to support amendments which will secure abortion rights in Northern Ireland as soon as possible.”

ENDS

POINTS TO NOTE

  • Information on Amendments here; Agreed changes are in amendments 12, 19, 21, and 24 which Peers are being asked to support to enable Government to effectively change the law in Northern Ireland. We oppose amendment 16 which seeks to delay implementation and we also oppose any amendments which may be moved on the floor of house to change the January date in Amendment 12. https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/bills/lbill/2017-2019/0192/18192-I.pdf
  • There are regulations and provision for abortion already in Northern Ireland. Up to 2013 there were 80 a year, usually for Foetal Anomalies or severe illness. Marie Stopes was open from 2012-2017 and provided EMA to people who met the strict criteria in Belfast and scanned then referred others overseas. Unlike ROI starting from scratch with no provision or expertise we do have some already albeit limited. There is also medical regulation which governs all healthcare procedures and doctors, hospitals, and clinics which are all regulated by the RQIA (the Northern Irish equivalent of the CQC). The idea we need a consultation on regulation is based on the false premise that this does not exist. https://www.health-ni.gov.uk/sites/default/files/publications/dhssps/guidance-termination-pregnancy.pdf
  • A questionnaire was posted in 2009 to all NHS gynaecologists in NI (43). One had retired. After three mailings, 37 replied; a response rate of 88% (37.42). We found that of these, 21 (57%) favoured a liberalisation of the law in NI. If all the non-responders were against liberalisation, then still half (21/42) would be in favour. A total of 35% (13/37) wanted unrestricted access in the 1st trimester, a more liberal position than allowed by the current law in Great Britain. A total of 29 (78%) were in favour of free abortions for women from NI, as is largely the case in England and Wales. 
  • There is NICE guidance on Termination of Pregnancy in development which is set to be published on 25th September – before these regulations come into place. The DHSS has the power to approve this guidance. This is based not on law but on best clinical practice. https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/GID-NG10058/documents/draft-guideline
  • The RCOG which is UK-wide already has extensive guidance on how to clinically provide abortion https://www.rcog.org.uk/globalassets/documents/guidelines/abortion-guideline_web_1.pdf
  • Between 2006 and 2015, the PSNI made 11 arrests related to illegal abortion. Between 2011 and 2016, five people were questioned and arrested for possession of abortifacients (drugs that induce abortion); two were convicted. The mother of a 15 year old girl who bought abortion pills for her daughter online is currently being prosecuted under these sections.