MPs approve abortion guidelines for Northern Ireland

NI's near blanket ban on abortion ended last year. Credit: PA

MPs have approved recently introduced abortion guidelines for Northern Ireland.

The regulations, which came into effect at the end of March, were backed by 253 votes to 136, a majority of 117, in the Commons.

The Lords had already approved them earlier this week.

The regulations provide the legal framework for the provision of abortion services in the region.

Northern Ireland’s near blanket ban on terminations ended last year when MPs intervened on the issue and voted through a law change when Stormont was still in deep freeze amid the power-sharing crisis.

Earlier, this month a majority of MLAs in the restored Assembly in Belfast approved a motion that rejected the “imposition” of the new laws on the region.

The Assembly motion had no impact on the legal status of the regulations, though anti-abortion parties like the DUP has expressed hope it would send a signal to MPs voting in the Commons.

But with parliament having backed the regulations, the Government has now avoided the prospect of having to redraw them.

Amnesty International, a prominent campaigner for liberalisation of the region's laws, welcomed the vote.

Grainne Teggart from Amnesty said: “It’s great to see another strong majority vote for abortion rights in Northern Ireland.”

She added that the Department of Health in Northern Ireland must fully commission these services as a “matter of priority”.

DUP MP Carla Lockhart said the move represented one of the darkest days in Northern Ireland’s history.

“The will of the people of Northern Ireland has been ignored. The will of the Northern Ireland Assembly has been ignored,” she said.

“The devolution settlement cast aside to press ahead with this life-ending agenda.”

She urged the Northern Ireland Assembly to change the regulations.

Anti-abortion activists claim provisions in the regulations discriminate against the disabled.

Their campaign against the laws has focused on a regulation that allows for terminations up to birth in cases of serious non-fatal disabilities.

They claims were rejected by pro-choice campaigners who insisted the law changes ensured women had access to modern compassionate health care.

Abortion is now legal in all circumstances in Northern Ireland in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

When the pregnancy poses a risk to the woman’s physical or mental health, the time limit is 24 weeks.

Abortions are permitted at any time up to birth when there has been a diagnosis of a fatal foetal abnormality or where the child is likely to suffer severe mental or physical impairment.

Anti-abortion campaigners claim the regulation involving non-fatal disabilities discriminates against disabled people and allows for unlimited terminations for conditions such as Down’s Syndrome.

Disability rights activists Heidi Crowter, who has Down’s Syndrome, was among those claiming such laws are discriminatory.

Responding to the vote, Right to Life UK spokeswoman Catherine Robinson said: “Today is an incredibly tragic day for Northern Ireland, for the unborn child and everyone who supports the right to life.

“The battle on these regulations now moves to Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Assembly.

“MLAs must now urgently bring forward to repeal these extreme abortion regulations.”