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Bid to change Northern Ireland’s abortion laws set for Stormont

·4-min read

A legislative bid to amend Northern Ireland’s recently liberalised abortion laws is to be launched at Stormont.

The private member’s bill is seeking to repeal a specific provision within the region’s abortion regulations that allows terminations up to birth in cases of serious non-fatal disabilities.

The bill is being tabled by Democratic Unionist Assembly member Paul Givan.

During an Assembly debate last year, a majority of MLAs voted in opposition to the particular section of the law that allows late stage abortions when severe disability has been diagnosed.

Mr Givan’s move is being backed by disability rights campaign group Don’t Screen Us Out, which claims the law is discriminatory and will allow abortions without time limit for conditions such as Down’s syndrome or cleft palate.

One high-profile activist involved in the campaign is Heidi Crowter, who has Down’s syndrome. Ms Crowter is also taking a separate legal action against the UK Government against a similar element in the 1967 Abortion Act, which applies in Great Britain.

The bill would not affect the provision within the law that permits abortions up to birth for fatal foetal abnormalities, where babies are not expected to survive outside the womb.

Northern Ireland’s previously restrictive abortion laws were changed by MPs at Westminster in 2019 at a time when the Stormont administration was collapsed.

The laws allow abortion in all circumstances up to 12 weeks. Terminations are permitted up to 24 weeks when there is a risk to the woman’s physical or mental health.

There is no time limit in cases of fatal foetal abnormality or when there has been a diagnosis of a serious physical or mental impairment that would cause a serious disability.

Mr Givan’s bill represents the first legislative attempt since devolution was restored in Northern Ireland to amend the abortion laws introduced by the UK Government.

“The current law tells those with disabilities that they are worth less than other people, their contribution is less valuable, their lives less important, less full,” said the DUP politician.

“It invites us to view those with disabilities as less deserving of the protection of the law. The idea that Down’s syndrome is some huge problem that should be addressed by abortion is chilling. You don’t have to look far to see the full lives those with disabilities lead – they enrich our communities and families.”

Ms Crowter added: “This bill that allows abortion up to birth in Northern Ireland makes me feel that I am not as valued as anyone else. Maybe people are even told that living with Down’s syndrome is too hard, but research confirms that people with Down’s syndrome and their families are happy with their lives.”

Belfast mother Laura Denny, whose son Nathan has Down’s syndrome, is also supporting the law change.

“It wasn’t until my son Nathan was in my arms that I realised I had a baby and not just a diagnosis,” she said.

“Termination was suggested to me in my pregnancy and I will never forgive myself for having considered it when I was given no hope for my baby. After a very turbulent pregnancy with Nathan and not a lot of medical support, we are hoping to raise awareness and challenge preconceptions of having a child with Down’s syndrome.”

Heidi Crowter, who has Down’s syndrome, is part of the campaign
Heidi Crowter, who has Down’s syndrome, is part of the campaign (JerseyroadPR/PA)

The bill seeking to amend Section 7 of the Abortion (Northern Ireland) (No.2) Regulations 2020 is due to be introduced by Mr Givan on the floor of the Assembly on Tuesday.

This first reading stage is procedural and will only last a number of minutes.

The Lagan Valley representative, who has engaged with MLAs from a number of other parties in drafting his bill, hopes a substantive debate on the issue, through the second reading stage, will happen within weeks.

If a majority of MLAs support the bill at that stage it will be handed to an Assembly committee to scrutinise the proposed law change.

Votes cast in an Assembly debate on the new abortion regulations last year suggest there could be cross-party support for the move.

A DUP motion that rejected the new regulations in their entirety, with a particular focus on the provision that permits abortions up to birth in cases of severe disability, passed by 46 votes to 40.

While Sinn Fein opposed that motion, the party did table an amendment that also called for the rejection of the non-fatal disability regulation, though without any demand for the broader abortion reforms to be axed. That amendment was defeated by 52 votes to 32.

Sinn Fein’s party position is for alignment of abortion laws across the island of Ireland and in the Irish Republic there is not a similar provision permitting abortions up to term in cases of serious non-fatal disabilities.

Factoring in the three MLAs who supported both the DUP motion and Sinn Fein amendment, that adds up to 75 of Stormont’s 90 MLAs who registered opposition to the section of law that is the subject of Mr Givan’s private member’s bill.

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