Belfast, Northern Ireland, Mar 13, 2019 / 05:02 pm (CNA).- Efforts to protect the unborn from legal abortion in Northern Ireland continue despite efforts to bypass self-governance and go directly through the U.K. Parliament—efforts backed by a U.N. committee and pro-abortion rights politicians and groups.
Last month pro-life advocates marched on the U.K. Parliament in Westminster opposing any imposition of legal abortion on Northern Ireland. Ten women marchers each held a box symbolizing 10,000 people they say have been born because of laws that protect the unborn from abortion.
“100,000 people in Northern Ireland are alive today because Northern Ireland did not accept the same abortion law that was introduced into Britain in 1967,” Dawn McEvoy, co-founder of the Belfast-based group Both Lives Matter, said Feb. 26. “These people are our mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, daughters and sons. Abortion pressure groups have no mandate from us the people of Northern Ireland to impose abortion on Northern Ireland from Westminster. We urge the British Government to respect the people of Northern Ireland and our elected representatives.”
On March 9, several hundred pro-abortion rights protesters paraded to Belfast’s City Hall, calling for legal abortion in Northern Ireland. Some marchers accused British Prime Minister Theresa May of violating women’s rights. The demonstration aimed to mark International Women’s Day observed the previous day, the Belfast Telegraph reports.
Abortion is legally permitted in Northern Ireland only if the mother’s life is at risk or if there is risk of permanent, serious damage to her mental or physical health. Bills to legalize abortion in cases of fatal fetal abnormality, rape, or incest failed in the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2016.
Elective abortion is legal in the rest of the U.K. up to 24 weeks.
May has said abortion should remain a devolved issue for Northern Ireland, which has self-governing powers.
However, the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont is currently suspended due to disagreements between the two major governing parties: the anti-abortion Democratic Unionist Party, which has traditionally drawn support from Protestants, and Sinn Fein, which has traditionally drawn support from Catholics but has taken a strong turn towards permissive abortion laws in recent years.
The DUP is a member of May’s coalition government in Westminster at a critical time in British politics, amid much controversy over the U.K.’s exit from the European Union.
Amnesty International is backing changes to Northern Ireland abortion law.
Grainne Teggart, Amnesty’s campaigns manager in Northern Ireland, called on the U.K. government to introduce “abortion reform” legislation in Westminster without delay. In a March 11 statement, she said devolution “does not relieve the U.K. government of their responsibility to uphold human rights in Northern Ireland.”
The group welcomed the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women report published March 11.
The U.N. committee charged there were “grave and systematic violations of women’s rights” in the region and criticized the failure of the U.K. to “ensure women’s access to abortion services,” including decriminalization of abortion, on the grounds that it is a matter for Northern Ireland authorities. The committee cited the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which requires the Westminster Parliament to legislate as necessary to ensure that the U.K.’s international obligations are met with respect to Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland’s abortion law has been under increased pressure in recent years. Since abortion became legal after strong voter support in the Republic, abortion advocates have said “the North is next,” while pro-life advocates have said “The North Protects.”
Labour Party MP Stella Creasy had intended to propose an amendment to a draft domestic abuse bill to change abortion laws in Ireland, but the ruling Conservative government restricted the bill to England and Wales.
Creasy has joined MPs from multiple parties and more than 70 groups calling on the government to remove the restriction, the Belfast Telegraph reports.
“The Government has restricted the extent of this bill to try and avoid upsetting the DUP,” she said.
A DUP spokesperson said any attempt to change the law without approval of the Assembly would breach the devolution settlement allowing self-government in Northern Ireland.
“The government should respect the right of the Assembly to legislate on abortion,” said the spokesperson.
Fiona Bruce, a Conservative MP representing Congleton in Cheshire, England, joined Both Lives Matter in urging the government to reject any effort to expand legal abortion.
“Abortion pressure groups are trying to undermine devolution and impose change to abortion law for Northern Ireland,” she said Feb. 26. “This is bad for devolution everywhere and contrary to Government policy.”
“These extreme proposals are out of touch with the will of the Northern Irish people, and in particular women,” she said. “It is clear that a strong majority of Northern Irish women reject interference from Westminster and believe that this is a decision for Northern Ireland.”
Both Lives Matter cited the polling group ComRes’ online poll in October 2018 of 1,013 Northern Ireland adults. It found 64 percent said abortion law should be decided by the people of Northern Ireland and their representatives, not MPs from other parts of the U.K.
A Belfast woman plans to bring forward a personal challenge to Northern Ireland’s abortion law to court this week.
In June 2018 the U.K. Supreme Court threw out a previous challenge to Northern Ireland’s abortion law, saying the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, which brought the case, did not have standing to do so. However, a majority of the judges said that the Northern Ireland abortion law framework is incompatible with human rights laws insofar as it bars abortion in cases of pregnancy by rape or incest or in cases of fetal abnormality. The U.K. government has so far not legislated any change.
Northern Irish women have been able to procure free National Health Service abortions in England, Scotland, and Wales since November 2017.
Some members of the House of Lords are attempting to require that same-sex marriage be legally recognized in Northern Ireland, the Belfast Telegraph reported March 1.
“In the absence of devolved government in Northern Ireland, there are members on all sides and in both Houses of Parliament who want to get this matter resolved,” said Conservative peer Lord Hayward, who with Labour peer Lord Collins of Highbury is backing such an amendment to the Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths Bill.
“Westminster has already passed Northern Ireland legislation in the absence of Stormont, so we know that we can and should address the issue of marriage equality,” Lord Hayward said.
The amendment would allow the Assembly six months to overturn the provision after the bill becomes law.
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