The Minister for Northern Ireland, Robin Walker, has been questioned over the extreme abortion regime the UK Government has imposed on the province.
Urgent questions were raised just two days after MLAs at the Northern Ireland Assembly passed a motion opposing the extreme measures, and just ahead of a House of Commons vote on the regulations later this month.
No obligation to impose extreme abortion regime
Starting the debate, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson MP said now that the Northern Ireland Assembly had been restored for almost five months it would be wrong for the UK parliament to proceed with imposing its extreme abortion regulations on the province.
Highlighting Tuesday’s Northern Ireland Assembly vote, in which MLAs rejected the extreme abortion regime by a clear majority, the DUP MP said: “The will of the people of Northern Ireland has spoken.”
He went even further and questioned whether the UK Government is, as it claims, under any legal obligation to impose the regulations, saying: “Having taken legal advice, at the highest level, I discover that the law is not at all clear on this and that there is actually as good a legal argument that the Government is under no such obligation.”
He adds: “In this regard, and of huge importance, I note the submissions to the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee from two QCs who also argue the Secretary of State is under no obligation to press these regulations to a vote” and to do so would “breach the devolution settlement and cause a constitutional crisis of the Government’s own making”.
In his closing remarks, Jeffrey says the regulations are discriminatory as they permit abortion up to birth on the grounds of non-fatal disabilities, and should be rejected.
He quotes disability campaigner Heidi Crowter, who has Down’s syndrome and is challenging the UK’s discriminatory abortion law, who said: “I would now call on the Government not to ask MPs and peers to vote for regulations that contain discriminatory provisions that tell people like me that we should not exist.”
The people of Northern Ireland have been ignored
Jim Shannon MP echoed the concerns raised by fellow DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson and asked Robin Walker MP why the UK Government is pushing ahead with abortion regulations after they’ve previously stated it is a devolved issue and should be debated by the devolved assembly.
Highlighting that the majority of consultation responses on the extreme regulations were opposed to any further provision of abortion in Northern Ireland, Jim Shannon said: “The people of Northern Ireland have spoken in a largely ignored consultation process.”
He closed his speech by urging the Minister to let Northern Ireland representatives and the people of Northern Ireland decide its own abortion regulations.
The Minister for Northern Ireland, Robin Walker, claimed he had “great sympathy” for Jim Shannon’s concerns but said, due to the absence of the Northern Ireland Assembly, the UK Government had obligations to deliver abortion in Northern Ireland.
He added the Northern Ireland Assembly could reform and take on the regulations.
Profound lack of respect for the people of Northern Ireland
Fiona Bruce MP says progressing with these regulations now that Stormont has returned, and following Tuesday’s vote to reject them, would show a profound lack of respect to the people of Northern Ireland and their elected representatives.
She adds that the “rushed” manner in which the regulations came about has thrown up “deep flaws”.
Describing one of these “deep flaws” the Conservative MP said: “Sex-selective abortion is now lawful here. It has been described by the Government here as abhorrent, yet the Northern Ireland regulations allow abortion for any reason up to 12 weeks, with no prohibition on sex-selective abortions.”
She added that, as it is now possible to tell the sex of an unborn child between 7 and 10 weeks, women could seek an abortion purely on the basis of sex and even travel to the UK, from Northern Ireland, seeking a sex-selective abortion.
Concluding her speech, Fiona Bruce asked Robin Walker: “Does the minister think this parliament really intended this and doesn’t it show why these rushed regulations should be scrapped and the issue properly returned to Stormont?”
Robin Walker dismissed Fiona’s concerns on sex-selective abortion and said the regulations make no refenece to sex-selective abortions and follows the same approach as the UK on this issue.
However, as abortion will be available on-demand, without certification, through to 12-weeks (2.1.2) women could have a sex-selective termination up to 12 weeks, which is different to the law in England, Wales and Scotland.
Regulations go further than required
DUP MP Ian Paisley brought attention to some of the many ways the extreme abortion regulations go further than what was required of the Conservative Government, when it imposed an extreme abortion regime on Northern Ireland.
He argued that nowhere in the CEDAW report does it state the Government should introduce sex-selective terminations and disability-selective abortions, in some cases right up to birth, particularly against the wishes of the people of Northern Ireland.
Ian Paisley said that giving back control to the Northern Ireland Assembly and the people of Northern Ireland is the “democratic thing to do, the right thing to do, and the appropriate thing to do.”
Both Ian Paisley and Conservative MP Danny Kruger mentioned that Stella Creasy, the MP responsible for putting forward the amendment which requires the UK Government to implement abortion in Northern Ireland, said that if the assembly is functioning, this wouldn’t be the right way forward.
Bob Stewart MP said he was under the impression that these regulations were “no more liberal than in the rest of Great Britain”, but expressed concern that this is not the case following comments made by other MPs during the urgent question session.
Robin Walker claimed the extreme abortion regime in Northern Ireland was consistent with the law in the rest of the UK, but Right To Life UK has found some glaring inconsistencies – including and abortion being routinely allowed in GP surgeries across the province.
‘Most liberal abortion laws in Europe’
DUP MP Carla Lockhart, who has an early day motion supporting Fiona Bruce’s Bill against disability-selective abortion for cleft lip, cleft palate and club foot, raised concerns that the UK Government’s regulations cause great offence to those with disabilities.
The pro-life MP, who used her maiden speech as an MP to defend the right to life of unborn babies, said: “This Government, whether, we like it or not is continuing to ride roughshod over the devolved administration in Northern Ireland. It is discriminating against people who have non-fatal disabilities, and is going far beyond its legal requirement and has implemented the most liberal abortion laws in the whole of Europe.
“Will the Minister of State recognise the severe offence these regulations pose to people with disabilities, but also the clear will of the devolved institutions is that these regulations are not wanted in Northern Ireland?”
Carla Lockhart also questioned Robin Walker over what he would say to Heidi Crowter, a disability campaigner with Down’s syndrome, who said she feels like she shouldn’t exist in this society if the extreme regulations in Northern Ireland go ahead.
The Upper Bann MP said: “Both lives matter. It is not just about the woman’s health, it is about both lives.
“It is not the right of this Government to implement such liberal abortion laws on Northern Ireland that will see abortion up to birth for disability.”
Robin Walker said Carla spoke very powerfully on the issue but said it wasn’t up to the UK Government to list specific conditions for which an abortion is available, but said it was an “individual decision for women” to make following medical assessments and clear support from medical professionals and others.
‘All lives matter and all lives have an intrinsic value’
Conservative MP Scott Benton also recognised the concerns of Heidi Crowter, and other people with disabilities, saying: “this House has a responsibility to send out a clear signal that all lives matter and all lives have an intrinsic human value.”
Addressing the Minister for Northern Ireland, he said: “listening to Heidi’s account will the Government not reconsider these regulations and ensure they don’t allow abortion on the grounds of non-fatal abnormalities.”
Robin Walker again said the decision to have a disability-selective abortion would be an “individual’s decision based on proper medical assessments and advice” – the same current advice allows for cleft lip abortions up to birth in the UK.
Labour MP Rachel Maskell said that proceeding with these regulations would undermine the devolution settlement and asked Robin Walker why he wouldn’t enable the Northern Ireland Assembly to move this legislation forward.
Robin Walker claimed the Northern Ireland Assembly could reform and take on the regulations, but only after they’d been implemented by the UK Government.
MPs and Peers at the UK Parliament are due to vote later this month on whether to approve or reject regulations that introduce an extreme abortion regime to Northern Ireland.
Whilst the vote at the Northern Ireland Assembly will not directly change the law in Northern Ireland, it has sent a very strong message to the UK Government, MPs and Peers at Westminster that Northern Ireland reject these regulations being imposed on the province.
This will make it much more difficult for MPs and Peers to vote to impose these regulations on Northern Ireland when they have been resoundingly rejected by the elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland.
If MPs and Peers vote down the redrafted regulations, the UK Government will then be forced to draft the regulations for a third time to be either less extreme or bring forward legislation allowing parliament to vote on revoking the regulations. The second of those options would give back control to the people of Northern Ireland through the Northern Ireland Assembly.