Bid to change abortion law fails after emotive debate

A mammoth debate on abortion strained the emotions of MLAs, with one appearing close to tears as he and his colleagues prepared to vote.

Ultimately, the Province’s politicians rejected attempts to relax the law on abortion in cases of rape, and cases involving fatal foetal abnormalities.

The latter proposal was rejected 59 to 40.

The other was rejected 64 to 30.

The issues were posed as amendments to the Justice (No 2) Bill.

A initial string of amendments had been whittled down to just two by the end of the night; No61 (fatal abnormalities) and No68 (rape and incest).

Both were Alliance motions.

Sinn Fein and Alliance had both strongly backed the idea of changing the law, with the latter party’s MLA Trevor Lunn imploring those in the chamber to vote “with your conscience”.

His voice cracked and shook when the midnight vote approached on Wednesday.

He described the status quo as a “stain on our national character,” adding that people in England cannot understand the Province’s hard-line stance on abortion issues.

He also told a poigniant personal tale.

“I will say the following with some trepidation,” he began.

“The reason why we did not have our third child — and I have two lovely daughters — was because there were serious problems during the pregnancy.

“We were advised that the baby probably would not go full term, and it did not.

“The second time, a year later, things seemed to be OK, and then we suddenly hit the same problems.

“Bear in mind how long ago this was. The doctors advised us that the baby was not likely to survive...

“We were advised that we would have to make a decision about that pregnancy.

“Our decision was to obtain a termination. In the period before we were able to organise that termination, I would like to think that either the good Lord or Mother Nature intervened, because the baby came away of its own accord.”

Visibly upset, Mr Lunn nonetheless remained calm and told fellow politicians that “the pain of that decision lives with us to this day” before resuming his seat.

However, despite all the debate in the chamber during the night, the amendments had appeared destined to fail well before the MLAs formally cast their votes, because the DUP and SDLP had signalled their opposition.

The DUP has come up with its own method of mulling over changes to the law on fatal foetal abnormalities.

The UUP meanwhile had a free vote on both matters – aborting foetuses which will not survive outside the womb, and those conceived via incest or rape.

The latter provoked criticism from barrister and MLA Jim Allister, who suggested that the Province must not be swayed by the examples of others when coming up with its own rules.

Among those speaking were Anna Lo, who had moved an amendment aimed at liberalising the law for women who claimed to be rape victims.

However Mr Allister rose to his feet and said that, under her proposal, a woman would merely need to allege that indecent assault had taken place in order to secure an abortion.

Ms Lo said Northern Ireland is “the exception of the world”, adding: “Forty-seven countries in Europe all allow abortion on the grounds of rape. So how do the other countries do it?”

Mr Allister queried this figure, adding: “But what other countries do is a matter for them! The question tonight is: What is this Assembly going to do? What do the consciences of this Assembly inform us that we should do?”

Ms Lo’s detailed amendment sought to make abortion permissible if “the pregnant woman has made a complaint to the police alleging that the pregnancy could be caused by rape, incest or indecent assault”.

She would, Ms Lo said, have to do this as soon as possible, and as long as medical staff have no evidence contradicting her claim.

A pregnancy term lasts only nine months, and a trial on the charge of rape could take longer than that.

“Either it’s rape or it’s not – and how do you know it’s rape but by due process?” Mr Allister concluded.

Other amendments debated focused on the plight faced by women who have been told that their unborn child has a condition which will mean it cannot survive once born.

Unlike other parts of the UK, the 1967 Abortion Act does not extend to Northern Ireland, where abortions are banned except where the life or mental health of the mother is in danger. Anyone who performs an illegal termination could be jailed for life.

ARLENE FOSTER: Abortions do not just affect women.