UK Parliament Forces Abortion on Northern Ireland

Westminster votes to liberalize laws despite local opposition.

The devolved assembly in Northern Ireland, the Executive Parliament buildings in Stormont, Belfast, are shown, is suspended, meaning the bill liberalizing abortion should pass into law in October.
The devolved assembly in Northern Ireland, the Executive Parliament buildings in Stormont, Belfast, are shown, is suspended, meaning the bill liberalizing abortion should pass into law in October. (photo: Shutterstock)

LONDON — When members of Parliament voted 332-99 to approve the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Act July 9, the United Kingdom stripped the region of its most pro-life bulwark.

Until now, Northern Ireland laws on abortion were among the most pro-life in the world, as abortion was only allowed when the life of the mother was in danger.

The Parliament voted this bill through even though abortion is a “devolved issue” and, therefore, a matter for Northern Ireland’s local assembly to decide upon. Labour MP Stella Creasy had tabled a last-minute amendment seeking abortion liberalization in Northern Ireland (NI) despite the original bill being unrelated to abortion.

When the voting result was announced, then-Prime Minister Theresa May indicated she would implement the vote. May’s support for the bill was crucial to its becoming law. Liam Gibson, NI development officer for the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, told the Register, “Without any doubt, [the bill’s passing] was the intention of May and leading members of her cabinet. Had there not been a desire on the part of the government to force this agenda through, it could not have happened. Last year she expressed the opinion that abortion laws in Northern Ireland ought to be liberalized but had maintained that, since the issue was under the legal authority of the devolved (decentralized) Assembly in Belfast, it was not a matter for the London government to decide.”

However, the timing of the vote proved crucial. As Gibson pointed out, since May “was due to leave office within a matter of days, it was virtually impossible to hold her to account or threaten her with possible negative consequences for her decision to facilitate the aims of the pro-abortion lobby.”

Casey’s amendment passing into law immediately prompted U.K. pro-life campaigners to initiate moves to block the legislation.


Outside the Original Scope

Speaking to the Register, Baroness Nuala O’Loan, an independent peer in the House of Lords, explained that the abortion provision in NI was “outside [the original bill’s] scope and [the amendment] should not have been allowed,” continuing: “This was a fast-track bill: No consultation, preparation or thought went into the abortion clause. Fast-track bills should only be used in urgent situations.” Furthermore, she observes that the bill “has no detail at all, [and] no scope for amendment.”

O’Loan sees a wider agenda at play here. She says the bill is part of a renewed campaign by some British Labour MPs for even greater liberalization of abortion across the whole of the U.K. She said, “There is a concerted effort in England to deregulate abortion completely. The [bill] just passed will decriminalize abortion completely to 28 weeks in NI. The day after [the bill] received royal assent, it was said in the House of Commons that since now abortion was decriminalized in NI, it must also be decriminalized in England so as to ensure parity of rights.” O’Loan added: “The NI Executive Formation Bill was a handy vehicle [for this]. It was an opportunity seized by [pro-abortion] Labour [MPs] and then facilitated by government.”

The British 1967 Abortion Act permitted abortion in certain circumstances. This act, however, has never been extended to NI. Increasingly pro-abortion groups and their British parliamentary supporters called for changes to what they termed the “anomalous” situation of NI, questioning why the law on abortion was different there to that of the rest of the U.K. After the result of the 2018 Irish referendum, which legalized abortion in the Republic of Ireland, Prime Minister May had come under renewed pressure to scrap existing abortion laws in NI.


Lack of Conservative Majority

The lack of a Conservative party majority in Westminster’s House of Commons and its consequent reliance on NI’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which is pro-life, meant that the May administration made no moves to change NI’s laws on abortion. In addition, politically, abortion remained “a devolved issue,” and, therefore, the proper business of the NI Stormont assembly rather than the U.K. Parliament. The NI assembly at Stormont, however, has been suspended since 2017. That ongoing vacuum has allowed for this latest parliamentary maneuver to change the law on abortion in NI.

As O’Loan pointed out, the passage of the present bill through parliament ignored all existing “protocols and conventions, including the Devolution Agreement under which abortion is a matter for the NI assembly.”

If NI’s devolved assembly remains suspended, then the bill liberalizing abortion should pass into law in October. As Gibson points out, “The Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Act received royal assent July 26. … Since in the U.K. constitutional system the courts cannot review an act of Parliament, it will require another act to repeal it. The current government is so weak and the abortion lobby so powerful that this is not a realistic possibility.”

The only hope for NI pro-lifers is a restored assembly. In that forum, locally elected NI politicians would be entitled either to approve or repeal the bill.

“The abortion provisions of the act will not take effect if the Northern Ireland parties can form a government before Oct. 21,” said Gibson. “Sadly, there is a strong incentive for pro-abortion politicians within Sinn Fein to ensure that there is no return to devolution, as this would prevent a change they agree with,” added Gibson.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that, as the Westminster Parliament voted to change the law on abortion in NI, two prominent court cases — both involving NI women — had brought the matter to the British public’s attention.

A ruling is expected shortly in the case of a woman who traveled from NI to England for an abortion. She maintains that the necessity for travel was in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights. Although, at an earlier hearing, the U.K.’s Supreme Court did not find in her favor — albeit on a legal technicality — much was made in the media and Parliament of the fact that the judges in their deliberations had clearly indicated their disapproval of the current NI laws on abortion.

The second case is that of a NI woman being prosecuted for buying abortion pills for her 14-year-old daughter who had become pregnant after being raped. A trial date has been set for November.

Last year in NI just 12 abortions were performed — all on account of the mother’s health deemed to have been at risk, the only criterion under which abortion is currently allowed there. During the same period 1,053 NI women traveled to England for abortions. Since 2017 the U.K. government has made financial provision for women so doing. Effectively the abortions of NI women undergoing the procedure in Britain are funded via the state.

Speaking for many in NI, Bernadette Smyth, the founder and director of the pro-life charity Precious Life, told the Register, “We will be organizing countless public awareness campaigns and prayer vigils to make a very clear statement to Westminster that abortion is ‘Not in Our Name!’”

She added, “There is no will for such a dramatic change to our legislation on abortion. … As recently as February 2016, the Stormont Assembly voted against changing the law here.” Precious Life is seeking legal advice about the way in which the legislation went through Parliament. “We are making it very clear that we will fight against the cruel and extreme law that the Westminster government has forced onto Northern Ireland, against the principles of devolution and against the wishes of the people,” Smyth said.

A spokeswoman for Right to Life UK, Clare McCarthy said, “Many thousands of people in Northern Ireland are deeply angered and distressed by this action of Parliament. The manner in which MPs from Westminster have attempted to impose abortion on a people that do not want it, and who they do not represent, is grossly disrespectful and unconstitutional.”

However, she added that U.K. pro-lifers have only weeks “to stop the introduction of one of the world’s most extreme abortion regimes.”

Gibson also emphasized the shortage of time. He told the Register that “the people of NI are angry and highly motivated,” but that while “determined to fight the implementation of the new regime, their position is almost completely powerless.”

As he pointed out: “Control has been seized by Westminster, and realistic options for stopping the implementation of this legislation have almost entirely disappeared,” adding, “Time is against us and once [the abortion law is] introduced it may prove impossible to reverse the change.”

Register correspondent K.V. Turley writes from London.