British parliamentary committee urges action on N Ireland abortion law

London, England, Apr 25, 2019 / 05:41 pm (CNA).- A committee of the British parliament has said Westminster should bypass Northern Ireland's self-governance to clarify the region's abortion law.

The House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee said Thursday that the UK government should provide a “clear framework and timeline” for Northern Ireland to address United Nations concerns on Northern Ireland’s abortion restrictions.

The committee's report was welcomed by Amnesty International UK and the Family Planning Association.

Christian groups and local officials have pushed back, saying this decision would hinder Northern Ireland's devolution. British Prime Minister Theresa May has said abortion should remain a devolved issue.

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.

The committee said the current law violates the rights of women in Northern Ireland.

“The lack of clarity about the current legal situation is creating confusion, fear and inequality,” said the committee’s chair, Maria Miller, according to the Independent. “Our report sets out action which the government must take to address this.”

“This government can't hide behind devolution to defend denying the women of Northern Ireland their basic human rights because they want to please the DUP,” said Labour MP Stella Creasy.

According to the committee, devolution cannot be used as an excuse to ignore human rights standards and “does not remove the UK Government’s own responsibilities to comply with its international obligations.”

The Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont is currently suspended due to disagreements between the two major governing parties

The committee said there is a lack of clarity over whether doctors in Northern Ireland may refer women for free National Health Services Abortions in England, Scotland, and and Wales, which they have been able to procure since November 2017.

Christian Action Research and Education (CARE), a pro-life group, responded to the committee's report, stating that the basis of human right standards was based on a single UN committee which had no legal standing, according to a April 25 statement by CARE’s chief executive, Nola Leach.

She also said that the report undermines devolution.

“The issue of abortion law in Northern Ireland should be decided by the people of Northern Ireland through their elected representatives and not by MPs sitting on a Westminster Committee,” Leach said. “The repercussions of damaging the devolution settlement in the way recommended in the report would be felt across the UK.”

The group pointed to an October 2018 online poll from ComeRes of more than 1,000 Northern Ireland adults, which ound 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.

Tory MP Eddie Hughes, a member of the Equalities Committee, released an alternative report, requesting that Westminster not interfere with the devolution of Northern Ireland. Rather, he said the Department of Health for Northern Ireland should seek to improve clinical care for women with fetal abnormalities.

Leach welcomed Hughes' report, saying it had “sensible proposals.” She said a change in the restrictions could lead to a greater increase in abortions and highlighted the number of children alive as a result of the law.

“The prospect of Westminster imposing change is highly alarming, as any legislation put forward could be amended to allow for widespread access to abortion on request for any reason in Northern Ireland. We do not believe the hardest of hard cases should be utilised to allow for abortion on request,” she said.

“We must not forget that thanks to NI’s life-affirming laws there are 100,000 people alive today across the Province.”

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