Sinn Fein has declined to comment on the significance of a senior party councillor in Belfast bringing forward a motion which appears to go far beyond the party policy on abortion, calling for the issue to be decriminalised.
On both sides of the Irish border, Sinn Fein has been increasingly vocal over recent years in calling for modest abortion reform.
However, amid tension within the party about an issue which has led to some prominent traditionalist members quitting, Sinn Fein has repeatedly stressed that it opposes the extension of the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland.
Although the 1967 legislation has made terminations much easier to obtain in Great Britain, it did not remove abortion from the area of criminal law, meaning that prosecutions can still be brought for procedures conducted outside of the terms of the act, such as in the case of certain late-term abortions.
However, a cross-party motion at Belfast City Council, which was proposed by Alliance’s Kate Nicholl and seconded by Sinn Fein former deputy lord mayor Mary Ellen Campbell, sets out a less ambiguous position.
The motion – which was due to be debated last night but has been delayed by a month – notes “increasing number of women who are accessing abortion pills via the internet, which leaves them vulnerable to prosecution” and goes on to say: “Accordingly, the council believes that abortion should be regulated like any other medical care and not by criminal law, while still enabling incidents of malpractice to be addressed, as with any other health service, through the general criminal law or medical disciplinary procedures.
“A woman who has an abortion is not a criminal, nor are healthcare professionals who care for them, and the law should not treat them as such.”
It is rare in Sinn Fein for councillors to engage in the sort of solo runs which are more common in less disciplined parties.
When asked by the News Letter if the party now supports full decriminalisation of abortion, Sinn Fein did not directly answer the question. Instead, the party issued a brief statement which dealt solely with the repeal of the eight amendment.
It said: “Sinn Fein reaffirms our support for the repeal of the eighth amendment of Bunreacht na hEireann [the Irish constitution]. Sinn Fein further affirms our commitment to campaign to achieve this objective.
“Sinn Fein calls on the Irish government to hold a referendum to repeal the 8th amendment without any further delay.”
Last year the then Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, came out to say that he was personally in favour of women being able to choose to have abortions.
Despite having been president of the party for 34 years during which it had opposed successive attempts to extend the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland, Mr Adams said that in his view it was “absolutely” the right of a woman to choose to have an abortion.
The party has also supported attempts to allow for abortions in cases where there has been a sexual crime or where it is judged that the foetus cannot survive for very long, or at all, outside the womb due to severe medical problems.