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Church leaders express 'grave concern' at potential abortion law changes

The church leaders say the new legislation goes far beyond the ‘hard cases’ Credit: Presbyterian Church in Ireland

Leaders from churches in Ireland have expressed opposition to new abortion laws proposed to come into effect here next month.

In a statement, the Church of Ireland, Methodist Church in Ireland, Roman Catholic Church, Presbyterian Church in Ireland and the Irish Council of Churches are calling on their congregations to lobby politicians to get an Executive in place by 21 October.

If an executive is not in place, Northern Ireland's abortion legislation will be liberalised.

It comes after a bill was passed in Westminster during the summer which would bring new legislation in place in 2020.

Currently, abortion is allowed in Northern Ireland only if there is a serious and permanent risk to a woman's health by continuing with a pregnancy.

In the rest of the UK, laws were changed by the 1967 Abortion Act, which allowed an abortion to be legally carried out up to a 24-week limit.

Abortion laws were liberalised in the Republic of Ireland in 2018.

Church leaders call to restore Assembly

In their statement, the church leaders said: “There is no evidence that these changes reflect the will of the people affected by them, as they were not consulted. They go far beyond the ‘hard cases’ some have been talking about.

“We will, therefore, be encouraging all of our members, congregations and parishes to do three things.

“Firstly, to take time to specifically pray over the weekend of 12 and 13 October - joining with many others throughout Northern Ireland, and further afield, praying both for the protection of the unborn in our society and also for women facing difficult and challenging pregnancies along with their families.

“We are also inviting all of our members to consider signing the online petition which Baroness O’ Loan has recently launched via change.org. We recognise that time is short, but that if our devolved institutions are re-established before 21 October, this Westminster-based legislation will not be imposed on Northern Ireland."

Our Northern Ireland political parties have it in their own hands to do something about this.

They all need to take risks and make the compromises necessary to find an accommodation that will restore the devolved institutions.

– Church leaders' statement

The statement continued: “We are calling on the Secretary of State to recall the Assembly before 21 October to provide an opportunity for the parties to take the necessary steps both to prevent these laws coming onto effect and to find a better Northern Ireland solution for these challenging issues."

The leaders added that they hope to meet with Secretary of State Julian Smith to express their concerns.

DUP leader Arlene Foster said: "People are very very concerned that we would become the region of the United Kingdom with the most liberal abortion laws - what would that say about Northern Ireland?

"We need to get back into the Assembly to make sure that that does not happen."

If an executive is not in place by 21 October, Northern Ireland's abortion legislation will be liberalised. Credit: Press Eye

The churches 'do not reflect the vast majority' of public opinion

Campaigners for abortion law change, however, says there must be a change to abortion laws here if a Stormont executive is to be formed before 21 October.

Grainne Teggert from Amnesty International believes the churches do not represent the 'vast majority' of people in Northern Ireland.

"The Northern Ireland Office will issue interim guidance in advance of 21 October," she said.

"The churches do not reflect the vast majority of the Northern Ireland public who we know have long favoured change. Finally, we are getting to a place where we will have a compassionate response to crisis pregnancy."

The UK Parliament has legislated to make abortion lawful including in circumstances of risk to health, serious and fatal foetal abnormalities and in cases of sexual crime - few disagree it should be available in these circumstances.

– Grainne Teggert, Amnesty International

Ms Teggert continued: "There must be no return to Stormont before 21 October without abortion reform agreed on exactly the same terms as has been secured at Westminster.

"These rights have been long and hard fought for and we will not accept these being sacrificed for political expediency.

"It would be foolhardy of any political party to think otherwise."