Human rights body challenged over ‘loss of NI abortion safeguards’

A reported 20,000 people joined a silent walk at Stormont on  September 6 to protest against the decriminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland
A reported 20,000 people joined a silent walk at Stormont on September 6 to protest against the decriminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland
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The Evangelical Alliance has challenged the Human Rights Commission for supporting decriminalised abortion in NI without raising any concerns that pending reforms here will remove all protections for pregnancies involving minor disabilities.

Under changes voted through recently by MPs at Westminster, if the Northern Ireland Executive does not re-form by October 21, abortion will be decriminalised in Northern Ireland. At present it is only lawful where a woman’s health is seriously at risk.

But lawyer David Smyth, NI public policy lead with the Evangelical Alliance, flatly rejected the commission’s claim about Northern Ireland law contravening human rights, and said the new NI regime would leave Down’s syndrome pregnancies in NI without any legal protection.

“The [new Westminster] legislation removes every explicit protection in law from every unborn child [in NI] up to at least viability, possibly 28 weeks,” he said. “Abortions could be performed for any reason up to viability which could include abortion because the baby is a girl and the couple wanted a boy.

“For the first time in Northern Ireland, babies with disabilities like Down’s syndrome will lose their pre-birth protection. In England and Wales, where Down’s is detected in the womb, 90% of babies are aborted. Abortion would also be legal for minor ‘defects’ like cleft lip or palette.”

From October 22, he said, there will be no explicit safeguards in NI to prevent abortions on the grounds of disability or the sex of the baby and most abortions will happen “because a human child is unwanted”.

“Yet the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission have raised no concerns that it potentially goes too far. In fact, in the name of human rights, the commission is advocating for this legislation – which will remove vital protections from unborn human babies to allow their destruction with no legal consequence.

“This is because the commission does not believe that the unborn child is entitled to any protection before birth under human rights law. It is important that the public know this and that it does not have to be this way. There is no explicit human right to an abortion because a child is unwanted.”

In fact, he claimed, the European Convention on Human Rights has long granted member states a wide flexibility on abortion law and this new legislation goes far beyond minimum human rights standards.

In June 2018 the Supreme Court rejected an appeal by the commission that NI law is incompatible with human rights. Although a majority of judges said NI law was incompatible with human rights, it rejected the commission’s case because it did not produce a victim to prove its case.

The commission is now seeking legislative and political changes to take a case in its own name.

Earlier this month two massive rallies took place in Belfast – one supporting and one opposing the pending reforms. In 2016, MLAs voted against relaxing the laws by 59 votes to 40. The commission was invited to comment.

In July the Human Rights Commission welcomed interventions at Westminster to progress legislation on abortion and same-sex marriage in NI.

Chief Commissioner Les Allamby said regarding the abortion laws in NI: “We must not have to continue to wait any longer to have the basic human rights of more than half the population of Northern Ireland protected.”

At present abortion is only lawful in Northern Ireland where there is a serious risk to the life of a woman. The potential punishment is life imprisonment for breaking the law.

The commission says that Articles 3, 8 and 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights are directly engaged by NI’s current legislation. These are, the right to freedom from torture, the right to privacy and the right not to be discriminated against.