Northern Ireland’s First Minister Paul Givan has said he will resist the UK Government’s order forcing Stormont to commission abortion services in Northern Ireland.
This announcement follows last Thursday’s announcement by Brandon Lewis MP, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, in which he laid out a formal timetable for forcing the commissioning of abortion services by March 2022.
Earlier this week former DUP leader and current agriculture minister, Edwin Poots, also suggested that Northern Ireland’s Health Minister Robin Swann and other devolved ministers could ignore Westminster’s attempts to force the Northern Ireland Executive to commission abortion services.
In an interview with BBC News, First Minister and DUP Assembly member Givan said he was currently taking legal advice for the situation, and affirmed that he was prepared to defy Brandon Lewis’ order, and is considering blocking any proposal on commissioning abortion services from the executive agenda.
He explained that Lewis’ move to force NI to commission services had “profound constitutional ramifications and to do it on this issue leads to the obvious question, will he do it on other issues?”
He said, “It is my intention to resist what the secretary of state has done by way of direction and I have to look at all my options both politically and legally”.
He added that “The secretary of state may have to take me to court” for refusing to follow his instruction on the matter.
Northern Ireland must commission abortion services by March 2022
Brandon Lewis has issued specific directions. The Northern Ireland Department of Health has been directed to continue providing funding to the Central Access Point provided by Informing Choices NI (ICNI). Informing Choices is a lobby group that currently runs a phone line that provides abortion referrals to local abortion services. He has also set 31 March 2022 as the date on which “fully commissioned CEDAW compliant services” must be available.
If abortion services are fully commissioned, disability-selective abortion will be available up to the point of birth for all disabilities, including cleft lip, cleft palate, club foot and Down’s syndrome. It would also see de facto abortion on demand available through to 24 weeks and allow sex-selective abortion through 12 weeks.
The Department of Health and the Regional Health and Social Care Board has been directed to:
“Commission, provide and fund abortion services so that they are available in all of the circumstances in which abortions are lawful”. Brandon Lewis expects the Northern Ireland Executive to allocate the funding for the abortion services.
The First Minister and deputy First Minister have been directed to include proposals brought forward by the Department of Health in this regard at the next meeting of the Executive Committee.
Information gained from a Freedom of Information (FOI) request has revealed that health officials in Northern Ireland met in December 2019 to discuss how many abortions the region should expect if abortion services were commissioned after Westminster voted to impose abortion on the region in July 2019.
According to notes from the meeting: “Service needs to be scaleable [sic] (if service take-up reaches […] England and Wales levels that figure could be 6,500)”.
Widespread opposition in Northern Ireland
There has been widespread opposition to the imposing of abortion regulations on Northern Ireland.
The Northern Ireland Assembly passed a motion opposing the regulations that have been imposed on the province by the UK Government. Across the two votes held, 75 of 90 MLAs voted against the provisions in the regulations allowing abortion for non-fatal disabilities. 79% of respondents to the Government consultation on the regulations were opposed to any abortion provision in Northern Ireland beyond what was previously permitted.
An open letter signed by over 18,000 people from Northern Ireland was delivered to the Prime Minister by disability campaigner Heidi Crowter, who has Down’s syndrome. The letter called on MPs to oppose the regulations and let the Northern Ireland Assembly decide on abortion law for Northern Ireland.
A spokesperson for Right To Life UK, Catherine Robinson, said: “We welcome Paul Givan’s push back against this irresponsible attempt by Westminster to force its radical pro-abortion agenda on the people of Northern Ireland. There is little support for these extreme measures in Northern Ireland, and it is shameful that the UK Government deems it appropriate to undermine devolution for the purpose of installing one of the most extreme abortion regimes in Europe”.
“The passing of the Severe Fetal Impairment Abortion (Amendment) Bill by such an overwhelming majority of MLAs and the huge public support behind this Bill shows that there is no appetite for further Westminster imposition of abortion on Northern Ireland”.