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Pro-choice activists attack NI Secretary over Westminster legislation claims

Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Karen Bradley (Stefan Rousseau/PA) Photo: PA Wire/PA Images

Pro-choice activists have accused the Northern Ireland Secretary of making inaccurate and disingenuous claims about Westminster’s ability to legislate for abortion reform in Northern Ireland.

Amnesty International criticised Karen Bradley’s claim that parliament was not qualified to change the region’s abortion regime and her further contention that people in Northern Ireland did not want MPs to take responsibility for the issue.

The Government is facing mounting pressure to reform the strict abortion laws in Northern Ireland after Supreme Court judges said they were incompatible with human rights legislation.

But Downing Street has maintained its view that the issue should be dealt with by a restored devolved Assembly.

Procession artwork march Credit: Women calling for abortion reform

In an interview with the Press Association on Monday, Mrs Bradley insisted there were 100 different views on abortion in Northern Ireland and the people she had spoken to about the issue wanted Stormont politicians to be the ones who decided if change was necessary.

Amnesty and the Family Planning Association (FPA) both issued statements in response on Tuesday.

They said both have requested a meeting with the Secretary of State to discuss the issue and Westminster’s responsibilities, claiming a prior request to meet had received no response.

Grainne Teggart, Northern Ireland campaigns manager for Amnesty UK, said: “It’s inaccurate and disingenuous to suggest that Westminster is not qualified to deal with the matter of abortion reform. They not only have the qualification to do so, but an obligation to do so.

“Westminster has the time to consider this issue as well as a clear way forward with amendments to decriminalise abortion being brought forward to the domestic abuse bill.

“Devolution, even if functioning, does not relieve the UK Government of its responsibility to ensure women’s right to abortion is upheld.

“Following the Supreme Court ruling, and the evident harm being caused by Northern Ireland’s extremely restrictive laws, it would be an utter betrayal of women to fail to legislate. The UK Government cannot sit idly by whilst women suffer.

“Inaction will not be accepted.

“We would be keen to know whose views the Secretary of State has consulted on this issue.

“She has clearly not been paying attention to public opinion in Northern Ireland which overwhelmingly favours change, including decriminalisation.

“We would welcome the opportunity to meet to discuss abortion reform and the responsibility of Westminster to deliver it”.

Ruairi Rowan, senior advocacy officer for FPA, said: “For 30 years FPA have provided pregnancy choices and post-abortion counselling.

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“Every day we see the impact that restrictive abortion law has on women and their families. It is unacceptable that women here are being left behind in a regime where abortion is illegal in almost every circumstance.

“Our work will continue to ensure that access to free, safe and legal abortion is enabled in Northern Ireland.  We would welcome a meeting to discuss the impact the criminalisation of abortion has both on women and the provision of our counselling service.”

Unlike other parts of the UK, the 1967 Abortion Act does not extend to Northern Ireland.

Abortion is illegal except where a woman’s life is at risk or there is a permanent or serious danger to her mental or physical health. Anyone who unlawfully carries out an abortion could be jailed for life.

The Northern Ireland Assembly voted in February 2016 against legalising abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality and rape or incest.

Pro-choice advocates have demanded action after a majority of Supreme Court judges last week said the ban on terminations in cases of rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormality needed “radical reconsideration”.

The campaigners are attempting to harness momentum they believe has been generated by the Irish Republic’s historic referendum vote to liberalise the abortion regime south of the border.

Anti-abortion activists insist the matter should only be determined by Stormont politicians.

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While a majority of Supreme Court judges expressed a view that the current regime is incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), they did not go so far as to make a formal declaration of incompatibility – a move that would probably have forced a law change.

That was essentially a legal technicality – a majority of judges ruled the organisation that brought the case did not have the authority to do so – and it did little to dampen calls for the Government to intervene and legislate in Northern Ireland amid the absence of devolved ministers due to the powersharing impasse in Belfast.

In an interview with PA in Belfast on Monday, Mrs Bradley said the Government was still considering the implications of the Supreme Court judgment.

But she added: “My conversations with people here is that they want their voice to be heard and they want their politicians, who they elected, to represent them and to develop laws around abortion that are right for Northern Ireland.

“If I have heard one view I’ve heard 100 different views about what that law should look like. But there is one thing that’s absolutely certain – politicians at Westminster are not the people qualified to determine what the law looks like.

“It absolutely should be done in Stormont.”

Anti-abortion campaigner Peter Lynas, who is the Northern Ireland director of the Evangelical Alliance, said the issue had to be dealt with at Stormont.

“We are not naïve, we realise the situation is not ideal, that it (the Assembly) is not sitting, but you can’t cherry pick certain issues and have Westminster deal with them,” he said.

Mr Lynas said his position was not based on a belief that Stormont MLAs would necessarily vote to retain the current legal position.

“It’s not like we believe we’ll get an easy run at Stormont, everybody knows that,” he said.

“I don’t think it suddenly means we’ll get an easy pro-life win, to put it in simple terms.

“The arithmetic is changing at Stormont too, but it still should be dealt with by Stormont – that is the appropriate place.”

Mr Lynas said people in Northern Ireland were opposed to wholesale liberalisation of abortion laws in line with the 1967 Act. But he acknowledged there was “ambiguity” on the public view in regard to the hard cases of fatal foetal abnormalities, rape and incest.

“The only place where there is ambiguity is around the hard cases,” he said.

“The polling suggests there is definitely ambiguity there, if not some support (for change). But we have not had a proper discussion on that, we’d like to see that debated a bit more fully.

“But there is absolutely no appetite beyond that.”