Abortion law ‘unlikely to be passed by the current Assembly’: Wells

Health Minister Jim Wells
Health Minister Jim Wells

Jim Wells has said that he does not believe that proposals to extend the circumstances in which abortion is permitted will be passed by this Assembly.

Mr Wells, who made clear that he was speaking in a personal capacity as a South Down MLA and not in his role as health minister, was careful not to give his own view on the proposed law.

However, Mr Wells’s strongly pro-life views are widely known.

On Thursday, justice minister David Ford announced that he will press forward with a proposal to make abortion legal in cases where babies are suffering from medical conditions which mean they will not be able to survive outside the womb.

However, he also revealed he is to ditch plans which would allow abortions for victims of rape and incest.

It followed a consultation in which interested organisations and members of the public were asked to have their say on the plans — and the vast bulk of the tens of thousands of people who responded were opposed to changing the law.

Speaking to the News Letter on Friday, Mr Wells was very sceptical about the possibility of the law being changed during this Assembly term.

He pointed out that as the bill was coming from the justice minister it would have to be brought before the Executive for approval.

At that stage, three Executive ministers could force a cross-community vote, meaning that a majority of nationalist ministers and a majority of unionist ministers would have to support the bill.

Even if it passed that hurdle, a petition of concern could be tabled in the Assembly which would force a cross-community vote there.

Mr Wells said that it would be “extremely challenging to get this through in less than 11 months” before the current Assembly runs out and a new one is elected.

He said that for any bill where there is not total unanimity among ministers “technically it’s quite difficult to get them through”, and that although the Assembly has been criticised for its scant legislative programme, there are “a lot” of bills to come through the chamber before the next Assembly election.

Mr Wells pointed to three bills of his own – one on mental health and incapacity, one to ban smoking in cars with children and one to force food premises to display their food hygiene rating.

Speaking of the abortion law proposals, he said: “I would suspect that quite a few members would want to have a very detailed look at this as a bill” and added that he would not be surprised if a cross-community vote was forced – either at the Executive or through a petition of concern in the Assembly.

After revealing his decision, Mr Ford came in for criticism from both pro and anti-abortion supporters simultaneously.

Some – like Amnesty International – hit out at his decision not to pursue abortion for rape victims, describing it as “inhumane” to force a woman to have a baby in such circumstances.

He was also accused of disregarding the views of most of those who had voiced an opinion in the consultation.