Editor’s note. Devolution refers to the transfer or delegation of power from a central government, in this case the United Kingdom, to a subnational, local authority, in this case Northern Ireland.
The Government in Westminster is coming under increasing pressure to commission abortion services in Northern Ireland despite the devolution of abortion power in the region and the majority of sitting Northern Ireland MPs in Westminster opposing it.
In a debate in Parliament on Tuesday 14 December, Labour MP for Pontypridd and former Northern Ireland Shadow Minister, Alex Davies-Jones MP, put the Government under pressure to commission abortion services in Northern Ireland.
She said: “The Secretary of State has clearly stated that fully commissioned services must be provided by March next year. If it becomes clear before that deadline that the Department of Health, or indeed the Northern Ireland Executive, are not making progress, he will have to take further steps to ensure that his legal duties are upheld”.
However, a number of MPs from Northern Ireland and elsewhere argued against a further imposition of Westminster on the region where abortion is supposed to be a devolved issue.
As DUP MP Carla Lockhart said: “Both the Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2020 and the Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2021 were passed despite the overwhelming majority of MPs representing Northern Ireland who take their seats in Westminster voting against the regulations on both occasions, despite the overwhelming majority of respondents to the consultation on the legislation being opposed to its imposition in Northern Ireland and despite the Assembly being back up and running prior to those regulations becoming law”.
She went on to argue that, since the legislation was based on non-binding international law, “[t]he very premise for the legislation was flawed”.
Lockhart also pointed out the discrimination against babies with disabilities and the fact that 100,000 people are alive today because Northern Ireland did not introduce abortion in 1967 like the rest of the UK did.
She argued that the fact that the Severe Fetal Impairment Abortion (Amendment) Bill was being discussed in the Legislative Assembly in Northern Ireland at the same time as this debate in Westminster “indicates the Assembly’s capacity to legislate for itself on abortion…”
Fiona Bruce MP also drew attention to the direct discrimination against babies with even minor disabilities, like club foot, present in the Northern Ireland abortion law.
“The fact that abortion up to birth for serious foetal disability is already in effect in GB is no reason to implement it in Northern Ireland—particularly as it is now considered to be deeply concerning and ill-defined legislation. I know that because my son was born with a club foot. I do not consider that to be a serious disability. We have seen it corrected; no one looking at my son today would know that he had been born with that disability”.
Since abortion was imposed on Northern Ireland in 2020, the Conservative Government in Westminster has given additional powers to the Northern Ireland Secretary, Brandon Lewis MP, to commission abortion services in the region despite the fact that abortion is a devolved matter. The Department of Health in Northern Ireland must now ensure that abortion services are commissioned across the region by March 2022.
Right To Life UK spokesperson, Catherine Robinson, said: “Abortion was introduced into Northern Ireland on extremely shaky legal grounds and at every turn, devolution has been completely ignored. This is made worse by the fact that the majority of Northern Ireland’s sitting MPs in Westminster opposed the introduction of abortion in the first place as well as there being no popular support for it either”.