The Northern Ireland minister Lord Duncan of Springbank recently remarked that the province’s insistence that the only lawful justification for abortion should be a threat to the mother’s life was “Victorian”. This ill-considered and patronising remark was not random. It was part of a concerted attempt to force abortion legislation on Northern Ireland.
The Conservative MPs Justine Greening and Amber Rudd have joined forces with Labour’s Stella Creasy, who goes even further, and who has been demanding the repeal of the 1861 Offences Against the Persons Act. This would decriminalise abortion across the United Kingdom, removing the few remaining protections for an unborn child, and potentially permitting abortion up to term and the removal of conscience provisions.
Creasy and her allies have form, having persuaded the Conservative Government to pay £1,400 to pregnant women wishing to travel from Northern Ireland to Britain to end the life of their unborn child (with no comparable sum for women continuing their pregnancy).
In response, Theresa May has sent mixed messages, saying she supports change but then, under pressure from the Democratic Unionist MPs and Conservative MPs Fiona Bruce and Maria Caulfield, stating that the change should only be made by a restored Northern Ireland Assembly, not by Westminster.
The Prime Minister is absolutely right in insisting that abortion remain a devolved matter. I once served as a Northern Ireland party spokesman and was later part of the cross-community, cross-party delegation that successfully persuaded John Major to make abortion a devolved matter (as it is in Scotland too). This was part of the discussions around the 1995 framework documents that proposed North-South institutions and a Northern Ireland Assembly – paving the way for the Good Friday Agreement. Those trying to unpick these sensitive matters should tread with great care.
Significantly, the most recent vote on abortion within any UK legislature was 18 months ago in the Northern Ireland Assembly. It voted against a change to the law. But British political parties, once champions of devolution, have turned full circle when it comes to abortion.
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