Catholic bishops decry MLAs’ refusal to ban abortions for non-fatal disabilities

The Catholic church has warned that the assembly’s rejection of a bill to ban abortions for non-fatal disabilities risks “screening out of existence an entire section of humanity”.

Last week a bid to change Northern Ireland’s abortion laws to prohibit late stage terminations in cases of non-fatal disability effectively failed following a close vote at Stormont.

A private members bill, sponsored by DUP MLA Christopher Stalford, was designed to change abortion legislation brought by Westminster while the Stormont Assembly was collapsed in 2019.

Mr Stalford said the bill would have “made it illegal to abort a baby right up to birth (40+ weeks) for disabilities such as Down’s syndrome, club foot or cleft lip”.

The bill was blocked in a vote last week.

Assembly members voted by a narrow margin against a key clause in the Severe Foetal Impairment Abortion (Amendment) Bill.

The Catholic Bishops of Northern Ireland issued a statement today warning that, “The effect of similar legislation in other parts of the world has been to screen out of existence an entire sector of humanity”.

They added that “the Abortion Law in Northern Ireland will send a message to all citizens that unborn disabled babies, are fundamentally less valued than those who are able-bodied. This is the opposite of a commitment to equality, professed by so many who support this unjust legislation.”

The bishops said: “It is a matter of grave concern for all those who uphold the preciousness and dignity of every human life that the current legal framework in Northern Ireland permits abortion, to the point of birth, where an unborn child is found to be suffering from a serious but non-life-threatening disability. The nature of such a disability is not defined in our legislation but will include conditions such as Down’s Syndrome. The effect of similar legislation in other parts of the world, especially in Scandinavia, has been to screen out of existence an entire sector of humanity.

 The bishops believed that the bill was “a measured and reasonable attempt to address this injustice”.

“Its defeat in the Northern Ireland Assembly represents a profound and fundamental failure to respect the equality of all persons, born and unborn, in our society. As a consequence, the Abortion Law in Northern Ireland will send a message to all citizens that unborn disabled babies are less valued than those who are able-bodied. This is the opposite of a commitment to equality, professed by so many who supported, directly or indirectly, the progress of this unjust legislation.”

“To dispose of unborn human beings on the grounds that they are disabled is morally abhorrent and indefensible in a civilised society.”

They added: “As we approach the celebration of the birth of the child Jesus, a birth which brings the hope of peace rooted in dignity to the whole world, we call on all Christians and citizens who believe in the equal rights of all, to redouble their efforts to defend the most vulnerable in our society from this unjust legislation.”

 The statement was issued in the names of Archbishop Eamon Martin, Archbishop of Armagh & Primate of All-Ireland and Apostolic Administrator of Dromore; Bishop Noel Treanor, Bishop of Down and Connor; Bishop Donal McKeown, Bishop of Derry; Bishop Larry Duffy, Bishop of Clogher; and, Bishop Michael Router Auxiliary Bishop of Armagh.

But Pro-choice activist Goretti Horgan questioned Catholic doctrine on the issue and said that human rights only begin at birth.

“Of course those who follow the teachings of the Catholic Church, that a fertilised egg is equivalent to an actual born human being, will never want to have an abortion for any reasons and pro-choice activists support their right to take that position,” she said. “However, not everyone including many Catholics agree with the Church in that regard. The international human rights treaties that protect the rights of children and of persons with disabilities are clear that human rights begin at birth.

“It is interesting for those of us who are part of the disability rights movement to note that the Catholic Bishops have made several statements about abortion for reasons of foetal anomaly but not about the rights of disabled children and people who are already born. Indeed, the history of the Church’s interaction with disabled people on this island has not been positive and, even in the recent past, has suggested that it needs to look to the mote in its own eye before issuing any more such statements.”

Mr Stalford last week expressed disappointment at the outcome of the vote.

“The Bill would have made it illegal to abort a baby right up to birth (40+ weeks) for disabilities such as Down’s syndrome, club foot or cleft lip,” he said.

Presbyterian Moderator Reverend Dr David Bruce expressed “deep disappointment” at the vote.

“The decision by MLAs sends a profound message to society about the value that is placed on all human life,” he said.

However Green Party MLA Clare Bailey said: “This bill sought to roll back on the hard-won rights of women in Northern Ireland.

“This bill was not compliant with human rights. It was right for the Assembly to ‘Kill the Bill’.”

But Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O’Neill said the Bill was part of a “shameful” strategy to block abortion services.

She said: “The women of this island have waited long enough for access to modern and compassionate abortion health services. That is an undeniable appalling fact.”

The law allows abortion in all circumstances up to 12 weeks.

Terminations are permitted up to 24 weeks when there is a risk to the woman’s physical or mental health.

There is no time limit in cases of fatal foetal abnormality or when there has been a diagnosis of a serious physical or mental impairment that would cause a serious disability.

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