The DUP has faced a cross-party assault on its abortion stance in Parliament, as senior Tories warned that without a devolved Assembly to consider the matter MPs may act on it themselves.
During what was at times an impassioned debate in the House of Commons, both Sammy Wilson and Jeffrey Donaldson insisted that Northern Ireland’s abortion regime has saved the lives of about 100,000 people who would otherwise have been terminated before birth.
The sitting – which was listed as an emergency debate – came just over a week after the Republic voted to pave the way for a much more liberal set of abortion rules.
Among those speaking yesterday was scandal-hit DUP MP David Simpson, who had last month faced accusations of having an affair.
Amid cross-party calls for MPs to bring in more liberal abortion rules while the Province’s MLAs remain in deadlocked limbo, Mr Wilson said many people are alive today who “would have been discarded and put in a bin before they were ever born” if Northern Irish laws were as relaxed as those in Great Britain.
Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley (whose Conservative government depends on DUP votes for its survival in Parliament) said abortion is something for Stormont to decide, but also said the practice of letting Tory MPs vote according to their conscience on the subject will continue – adding if the Province’s own politicians are prevented from taking decisions, the Northern Irish public risk being “disenfranchised”.
Being even more explicit about the potential for Westminster to intervene was the International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt.
Summing it up, she said: “Message from NI Secretary of State today: NI should take that responsibility. Message from the House of Commons: if you don’t, we will.”
The law on abortion across the UK has evolved from a complicated patchwork of different acts, but the most important in terms of relaxing the rules is the 1967 Abortion Act, which does not apply in Northern Ireland.
The Royal College of Midwives has described abortion as currently only being possible for a woman in Northern Ireland if it is “clearly demonstrated” that there will be “real or serious, long term or permanent damage to her physical or mental health”.
Lagan Valley MP Jeffrey Donaldson told the Commons: “Research in Northern Ireland shows that since the introduction of the Abortion Act 1967 here, 100,000 people in Northern Ireland are alive today because we in Northern Ireland did not accept that law.
“That research has been backed up with proper scientific fact. I am proud of that pro-life position.”
East Antrim MP Sammy Wilson told the Commons yesterday: “We have people today in Northern Ireland who are rearing families, who are contributing to society, who are building their businesses, who are working in our factories, who are sitting in our schools, who otherwise, if we had had the legislation which exists here in the rest of the UK, would have been discarded and put in a bin before they were ever born.”
On the Irish abortion referendum, Ian Paisley, DUP MP for North Antrim, said changing the law in Northern Ireland is not something to be done “in the heat of the moment following something that happened in a foreign jurisdiction”.
As well as the DUP having its pro-life stance challenged by Labour MPs (as well as from SNP, Plaid Cymru, and other quarters), a string of Conservatives also spoke out.
Tory MP Heidi Allen told the House that she herself had an abortion when she was ill, saying: “I was having seizures every day, I wasn’t even able to control my own body, let alone care for a new life.”
She added: “I’ve been there, I am making it my business.”
Conservative MP Michael Fabricant told the House that “rather wonderful that the Republic of Ireland is leading the way on this”, and that Northern Ireland should follow suit.
Huw Merriman, Bexhill and Battle Tory MP, said “we have to make a stand for others in the UK to have the rights that my constituents have”.
Colleague Maria Miller said while people “cannot ride roughshod” over devolution, “we have clear international responsibilities to outlaw discrimination against women”.
- Yesterday’s debate came ahead of an important decision expected from the Supreme Court this Thursday, when a panel of judges is set to rule on the legality of Northern Ireland’s current rules in the context of human rights law.
Tory MP Vicky Ford told the Commons if the court decides the NI law is in breach of human rights rules, “this government will have to take action”.