This afternoon the House of Lords has approved the Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2021. This came after yesterday evening’s House of Commons debate in which MPs voted by 431 to 89 to approve new regulations that will give the Northern Ireland secretary sweeping new powers to impose expanded abortion access on Northern Ireland.
The new powers will enable the Northern Ireland Secretary to force Stormont to expand abortion access across Northern Ireland through the commissioning of abortion services. This includes powers to direct the First Minister, deputy First Minister, a Northern Ireland Minister, a Northern Ireland department, the Regional Health and Social Care Board, and the Regional Agency for Public Health and Social Well-being.
Three amendments to the motion were also voted on during the debate.
The first amendment, moved by Baroness O’Loan, proposed a rejection of the Regulations on the basis that the Northern Ireland Assembly is now sitting and the matter is devolved to that legislature. The amendment outlined that enacting the new regulation would undermine the devolution settlement in respect of education as well as abortion policy. It also highlighted the lack of “public consultation on the Regulations” given that they were laid shortly before Parliament’s Easter recess, which prevented the House from considering them before they took effect. The amendment was voted down by 418 to 93.
Lord Morrow’s amendment posited that the Bill, if passed, would place the “union in jeopardy”, and would not reflect the wishes of Northern Ireland, given that all the Members of Parliament representing seats in Northern Ireland who had taken their seats at Westminster had voted against it in 2019, and that the Government ought to repeal section 9 accordingly. During his speech he said “In the last 50 years in particular, we have developed a distinctive approach that affirms the importance of both lives, the life of the mother and that of the unborn. That may not matter to people in other parts of the union, but it matters very much to the people in Northern Ireland.” The amendment was voted down by 401 to 63.
The power to discriminate
In his speech, Lord Shinkwin said “I am a severely disabled parliamentarian who believes I have as much right to live as anyone else… the regulations challenge that right.” His amendment recommended that the House decline to approve the regulations on the basis that they gave the state the power to “discriminat[e] in Northern Ireland by denying unborn human beings with disabilities the same protections afforded non-disabled human beings between 24 weeks’ gestation and full-term”.
He continued “because such commissioning would implicate the Secretary of State, and by extension Her Majesty’s Government, in the perpetuation of negative stereotypes towards people with disabilities, as it would provide that while unborn non-disabled human beings from 24 weeks’ gestation are worthy of protection from termination, those who might be born with disabilities are not”. The amendment was voted down by 409 to 70.
“A huge disappointment”
Right To Life UK spokesperson, Catherine Robinson said: “Today’s approval of these regulations in the House of Lords is not just a blow to the people of Northern Ireland and to the majority of MLAs, who voted against the extreme abortion regime at the Northern Ireland Assembly, but is also a huge disappointment for both pro-life campaigners and people with disabilities across the UK. If these new powers are enacted by the Northern Ireland Secretary, the government risks directly violating the devolution settlement”.
What happens next?
Following today’s vote in the House of Lords, the Northern Ireland Secretary, Brandon Lewis, will now decide whether or not to proceed with using his new powers to impose expanded abortion access on Northern Ireland.