MPs Continue Efforts to Interfere in NI Abortion Law
MPs in Westminster held an emergency debate on abortion laws on Tuesday as part of an effort to further liberalise the law in Britain and have the same law apply in Northern Ireland.
The House of Commons debate focused on sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act, which criminalise abortion (except in circumstances covered by the 1967 Abortion Act).
British Prime Minister Theresa May continues to insist that abortion is a matter for the devolved government in Belfast, which is currently suspended. But critics believe her position is complicated by her own government's reliance on Northern Ireland's socially conservative Democratic Unionist Party.
Opposition Labour MP Stella Creasy, who secured the emergency debate, said MPs had a duty to repeal the elements of the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act (OAPA) that made abortion illegal. Ms Creasy told the Commons that the Irish referendum had "thrown a spotlight on the situation in Northern Ireland", where she said one million women were affected.
"OAPA is over 150 years old. It puts abortion in the same category as homicide, destroying or damaging a building with the use of gunpowder, child stealing, rape or defilement of women," she told MPs. "By repealing OAPA, we - as the UK parliament - can show women across the UK we trust them all with their own healthcare, wherever they live."
Pro-Life MP Fiona Bruce (Conservative) pointed out, however, that “This campaign is not just about Northern Ireland. It is about liberalising abortion law in the whole of the UK. As Stella Creasy tweeted yesterday: “Please ask your MP to stand with us repealing OAPA so that the whole of the U.K. can have modern abortion laws including Northern Ireland.”
The debate in Parliament came just two days before Britain's Supreme Court ruled on a claim that Northern Ireland's ban contravenes human rights legislation. A majority of Supreme Court judges expressed the opinion that the legislation is at odds with European law in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, rape and incest. But most of the seven-strong panel of justices in London ruled that the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) had no legal standing to bring its challenge. The judges therefore did not make a formal declaration of incompatibility, which would usually produce change in the law.
Northern Ireland Secretary of State Karen Bradley told the House of Commons: "No formal declaration has been made by the court and the appeal has been dismissed. But the analysis and comments from the court on the issue of incompatibility will be clearly heard by this House and politicians in Northern Ireland."
Outside the court Bernadette Smyth, director of Northern Ireland-based pro-life campaign group Precious Life, said: "What happened here today was upholding democracy. This court made a ruling that this court has no right to make decisions for Northern Ireland.
"Regardless of their opinions, this is a law in Northern Ireland and that is where these decisions should be made."
Dawn McAvoy, from Northern Ireland campaign group Both Lives Matter, said there was no legal requirement for a law change. "The court did not find a human right to end a human life," she said.
During proceedings in October, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission told the court the current law criminalises "exceptionally vulnerable" women and girls and subjects them to "inhuman and degrading" treatment.
During the three-day appeal hearing, a QC representing the commission argued that human rights were being breached, with those affected being forced to go through "physical and mental torture".
The Supreme Court was asked to rule that a prohibition on abortions where a pregnancy arises from rape or incest, or "involves a serious foetal abnormality", is unlawful.
The NIHRC claimed the law's effect on women is incompatible with rights under the European Convention on Human Rights.
Contesting the appeal, the Stormont Executive's senior legal adviser, Attorney General John Larkin QC, said Northern Ireland's criminal law on abortion is a matter for the "democratic judgment" of the legislature.
The legislature, he said, "has struck the proportionate balance required for the protection of the rights of women and unborn children".
RTÉ. June 5. Conservative Home. June 4. RTÉ. June 7.