A STORMONT vote on an amendment that would ban abortions taking place at the Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast will now not take place next week – and Sinn Fein has said that its MLAs will be whipped to vote against the amendment.
The move to attach an amendment that would outlaw any abortions at private clinics in Northern Ireland to the Justice Bill was unveiled by the SDLP’s Alban Maginness and DUP’s Paul Givan on Wednesday and the vote had been scheduled to take place next Tuesday – just two days before the Mid Ulster by-election.
However, last night it emerged that Justice Minister David Ford has told Assembly Speaker Willie Hay that he will be unable to move the Justice Bill, for technical reasons, next week and it will instead be debated at a later date.
However, Sinn Fein yesterday appeared to effectively end the chance of the amendment passing. Despite Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness being sharply critical of the Marie Stopes clinic when it opened last year, Sinn Fein said that it will oppose the move.
When asked if there would be a party whip on the issue or if it would be treated as an issue of conscience – as happens in the UUP and Alliance – a Sinn Fein spokesman told the News Letter: “Everyone needs to follow the party line.”
And, when asked for Sinn Fein Mid Ulster by-election candidate Francie Molloy’s position on the abortion amendment, the spokesman said: “The party line.”
Sinn Fein also said that it would “discuss” the issue of whether to table a ‘petition of concern’ – something which, if tabled, would force a cross-community vote and give Sinn Fein’s 29 MLAs the chance to veto the amendment.
Last night Alliance’s Anna Lo confirmed that a petition of concern was being circulated and that she had signed it. The South Belfast MLA told BBC Radio Ulster’s Evening Extra programme that it was wrong to put such an amendment through at the “last minute”.
Yesterday pressure mounted on Sinn Fein from church leaders who supported the cross-community move to ensure that legal abortions to save the life of a mother only take place within the NHS.
In a statement issued through the Sinn Fein press office, South Down MLA Caitríona Ruane which said that the party supported abortions being legal where a pregnant woman’s “life or mental health is at risk or in grave danger”.
The former education minister said: “This proposal to amend legislation and make it unlawful to secure a termination outside the NHS is clearly an attempt to restrict the right of a woman to obtain a termination in life-threatening circumstances. We are therefore opposed to this proposal.
“We are also opposed to the making of legislation on important sensitive issues in this way.”
Just four months ago the Deputy First Minister insisted that Sinn Fein was “not in favour of abortion” and opposed attempts to liberalise abortion laws.
The chairman of the Church of Ireland’s board for social theology, the Rev Adrian Dorrian, said in a statement issued through the church’s press office: “Termination of pregnancy is never a desirable outcome, although in some extreme medical cases it may be necessary. This is a hugely significant moral issue and consequently legal grey areas are undesirable.
“It remains imperative, therefore, that where termination of a pregnancy is carried out, it is done so to the highest possible standards of clinical professionalism and with appropriate oversight.”
Former Presbyterian Moderator the Rev Dr Norman Hamilton, convener of the denomination’s church and society committee, welcomed the amendment and said that it would bring “clarification and accountability to the circumstances under which abortions are possible in Northern Ireland”.
Evangelical Alliance’s Northern Ireland director Peter Lynas also welcomed the DUP-SDLP move, of which he said: “This would not change the service offered to women in Northern Ireland, simply restrict the provision to one regulated body – the NHS.”
In a statement, Mr Givan and Mr Maginness urged Sinn Fein to reconsider its opposition to their amendment. They said: “It is disappointing that Caitriona Ruane and her party have indicated their opposition to this reasonable amendment which aims to strengthen accountability and transparency. We are also surprised by the Sinn Fein opposition.”
But Ms Lo said she was “dismayed” at the amendment and claimed there was a “vendetta against Marie Stopes”. She said: “This is clearly part of Mr Givan and Mr Maginness’ anti-choice agenda. It is insulting to women to not allow them autonomy over their own bodies and it implies that the decision to have an abortion is a simple one.
“The NHS contracts many services to private healthcare firms – I find the hypocrisy staggering. Just like any other medical service that you can get on the NHS, you should be able to have the choice to avail of the same service in the private sector.”