The situation is replete with irony. In the absence of the Assembly a formerly inert Westminster sprung into life to enact three controversial reforms; on same sex marriage, victims’ pensions (pending) and most controversially of all, abortion. Sinn Fein which only acknowledges any legal British authority over Northern Ireland with the greatest reluctance warmly welcomed Westminster’s imposition of the most radical shift possible from the most restrictive to the most sweeping abortion regulations in these islands; while the defenders of the Union the DUP remain strongly opposed to this imposition of “British values” on ethical grounds and constitutional principle.
The regulations indeed exceed the terms of the GB 1967 Abortion Act. They enshrine extensions demanded by abortion reformers like the principal sponsor of the NI Act, the Labour MP Stella Creasy.
New abortion framework for Northern Ireland
The regulations allow for access to abortions without conditionality up to 12 weeks gestation (11 weeks + 6 days), to be certified by one medical professional that the pregnancy has not exceeded its twelfth week.
Abortions beyond 12 weeks gestation (11 weeks + 6 days) are lawful in the cases where:
- the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman or girl, greater than the risk of terminating the pregnancy up to 24 weeks gestation (23 weeks + 6 days);
- Severe fetal impairment and fatal fetal abnormalities without any gestational time limit; and
- where there is a risk to the life of the woman or girl, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, or where necessary to prevent grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman or girl, including in cases of immediate necessity without any gestational time limit.
The Department of Health in Northern Ireland will be responsible for commissioning abortion services, as appropriate, in General Practitioners premises, clinics provided by a Health and Social Care (HSC) trust, and HSC hospitals, operating under the overall Northern Ireland HSC framework.
For early medical abortions (up to the end of the tenth week), the woman’s home in Northern Ireland will be a place where the second stage of early medical abortion may be carried out, following a medical consultation and the taking of the first stage of the treatment.
Further information on the availability of services in Northern Ireland will be provided by the Northern Ireland Department of Health in due course.
Westminster was taking its revenge on Northern Ireland for its endless failure to self govern and for a more pressing, less elevated reason at the time ; it was one in the eye from Remainers against the DUP for keeping the Leave position just viable in what was then a tied House of Commons.
The circumstances were a unique mixture of parliamentary shenanigans and higher principle discreetly aided and abetted by the highly unofficial whipping skills of Julian Smith. Commons business had to be created to keep the House in session and the Stormont standoff provided a golden opportunity to fill a vacuum. A cross party group of women MPs united to declare that the need to bring NI human rights into line with the British norm overrode the prerogatives of the suspended Stormont. This is a controversial claim regardless of the subject and might yet be tested in the Courts.
Would abortion reform have passed Stormont by simple majority and in the unlikely event that the petition of concern veto power had not been activated? It must be doubted. The DUP against, the SDLP split with a majority in favour, the UUP split with a majority against and Alliance ducking it as an issue of conscience – (not a good sign for taking tough decisions to come).
Who can doubt that if Stormont had stayed shut the present Conservative government would have imposed a Legacy Bill that ignored the balance of opinion among local politicians? Come to think if, they may do so still. The coronavirus crisis also confirms where the real power still lies. Westminster Rules – OK or not.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London