After a breakdown in the power-sharing agreement at Stormont in January 2017, Westminster has been caretaking ever since, and has been in power ever since. In July 2019, MPs at Westminster passed the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Bill, designed 'to keep public services running and delay another assembly election'. (1) However, amendments liberalising Northern Ireland's homosexual marriage and abortion laws were also tacked on to the Bill, which was to come into effect on 21 October 2019 if a Stormont Executive had not been reinstated.
Despite the valiant efforts of Christians and other pro-life campaigners, a last-minute attempt to restore the Northern Ireland Assembly broke down, and the Bill was enacted.
The section of the Bill affecting abortion repeals Sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 and thus decriminalises abortion, at least up to the point of viability (currently set at 28 weeks). (2) This makes it one of the most liberal abortion laws in Europe.
Worse still, new regulations will not be put in place until 31 March 2020, meaning that 'there will be no limitations on where abortions can take place, no requirements for abortion providers to be inspected and no notification requirements for at least the next five months.' (3) During this period, women requesting abortions will be directed to travel to England for the procedure. All costs, including travel and any necessary accommodation will be covered. (4)
The government's guidance for the interim period states that 'consideration is being given to providing for conscientious objection in the new legal framework from the end of March 2020.' (5) What of conscientious objection between now and then? The guidelines simply state that in the interim period, 'anyone who has a conscientious objection to abortion may want to raise this with their employer.' This means there is currently 'no explicit legal protection for medical professionals who conscientiously object to abortion'. (6)
In other words, on 21 October a doctor could have been prosecuted for terminating the life of a healthy, unborn baby; today he or she could face GMC referral for refusing to.
CMF is continuing to watch developments closely. Our support is with our members in Northern Ireland as they navigate this brave new world.
Review by Jennie Pollock, CMF Associate Head of Public Policy