MPs have this evening voted by 431 votes 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 vote followed a debate on the regulations yesterday evening where several MPs grilled Northern Ireland secretary, Brandon Lewis, for giving himself the new powers.
The MPs raised concerns during a debate held at the First Delegated Legislation Committee.
The regulations will give the Northern Ireland Secretary new powers, enabling him to force Stormont to expand abortion access across Northern Ireland through the commissioning of abortion services. The new powers will allow Brandon Lewis 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.
Not wanted by the people of Northern Ireland
In the debate last night, Miriam Cates, MP for Penistone and Stocksbridge, highlighted that the people of Northern Ireland do not want abortion imposed on the region by Westminster.
“Abortion is a devolved issue, and the only legal or moral basis for the 2019 intervention by the UK Government was that there was no sitting Northern Ireland Assembly at that time. As we are all aware, that is no longer the case, and the Assembly has shown itself to be perfectly competent in developing its own legislation”.
“There is no longer any justification for the UK Government to enforce the regulations. Pressing ahead, as we are doing today, is a breach of the Belfast agreement and weakens the trust and respect upon which devolution is founded…. [T]he Northern Ireland Assembly opposes the regulations. When the people of Northern Ireland were consulted on the regulations last year, 80% rejected them”.
“An unrestricted abortion regime”
She went on to describe how the UK Government has chosen to impose an abortion regime on Northern Ireland that goes far beyond current abortion legislation in England, Wales and Scotland, saying:
“[These] measures go beyond Great Britain equivalents. They mandate an abortion regime that is quite unrestricted and, I believe, unsafe. Unlike in England and Wales, there will be no requirement for two doctors to certify, and abortion will be routinely available at GP’s surgeries rather than only in restricted places. Although I appreciate the Government’s requirement for safeguards, the regulations could permit sex-selective abortion by default, as they allow abortion for any reason until 12 weeks’ gestation”.
Cates also highlighted how the new regulations would allow abortion up to birth for all babies with disabilities. This would include conditions such as Down’s syndrome, cleft lip and club foot. As Sir John Hayes MP added, such provisions mean Northern Ireland could end up with a circumstance where rather than being equivalent to the rest of Great Britain, they would become “considerably more permissive” in regards to abortion provisions.
Conservative MP Miriam Cates added “Unlike in England and Wales, there will be no requirement for two doctors to certify, and abortion will be routinely available at GP’s surgeries rather than only in restricted places. Although I appreciate the Government’s requirement for safeguards, the regulations could permit sex-selective abortion by default, as they allow abortion for any reason until 12 weeks’ gestation”.
No basis to claims that international obligations are being breached
Northern Ireland MP Jim Shannon also raised concerns that there has been no consultation with the people of Northern Ireland on the new regulations, despite abortion being a devolved matter in Northern Ireland “since it was created in 1921”. He went on, “It was argued by many that the Secretary of State needed to agree to the proposed section 9 of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 because it was required to meet international obligations. I believe it is clear that those arguments were false” and described the legislation as “Constitutionally flawed”.
Carla Lockhart MP said: “The regulations are not just based on the false premise that they are a requirement of international law… [T]he case for the vote on 9 July 2019 was greatly strengthened by a claim that it is now clear was not true”.
“The CEDAW convention, which is international law and is supposed to define the terms of reference of the CEDAW committee, does not even mention abortion, let alone define a right to it. Moreover, the CEDAW committee is not a judicial body, and it does not have standing to read in a right to abortion, as demonstrated by Professor Mark Hill, QC”.
She went on, “I want pathways for those women to choose life…I hear so little about the unborn. I hear so little about the baby being aborted. Unfortunately, those little babies do not have a voice… I call on [all Members] to press the Government to propose the repeal of section 9, and leave the issue with democratically elected politicians in Northern Ireland”.
Right to Life UK spokesperson, Catherine Robinson said: “The Government’s new powers on abortion in Northern Ireland would directly undermine devolution if enacted. There is an elected and sitting Northern Ireland Assembly that is authorised to make decisions on devolved matters including abortion, and it is extraordinary that Westminster should seek to enforce such a radical change in policy on such a sensitive issue”.
“The passing of the Severe Fetal Impairment Abortion (Amendment) Bill by such an overwhelming majority of Northern Irish MLAs and the huge public support behind this Bill shows that there is no appetite for further Westminster imposition of abortion on Northern Ireland. Sadly though, it appears the Government will hardly likely let a trifle like ‘the will of the people’ and ‘respect for sovereignty’ get in the way of their plans to expand abortion access at all costs”.