The decision to release a report recommending the relaxation of Northern Ireland abortion legislation is “deeply troubling” due to the potential impact it may have on the impending southern referendum on the issue, it is claimed.
The joint report of The Working Group on ‘Fatal Fetal Abnormality’ – a hotly contested term – was released yesterday in response to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request.
It recommends that abortions be allowed in Northern Ireland in cases of life-limiting illnesses in the unborn. They are currently only lawful in cases of serious risk to the health of the mother.
It found that that “one of the most compelling cases for change” came from medical staff who said current laws “prevents them from fully meeting their duty of care to all women in this situation”.
The report was commissioned in 2016 by the then health and justice ministers, to inform policy decisions.
While departments are not obliged to release such documents under the FOI Act, they said yesterday they had made an exception on this occasion “in the public interest” because the absence of an Executive means there is no longer any need to draw a veil over ministerial deliberations.
However, at the time of going to press, the departments had not offered any reason as to why they distributed the report widely to the media which is not a normal response to an FOI request.
Pro-life campaign alliance Both Lives Matter expressed scepticism.
“The timing of the release of this report is deeply troubling because of the potential it may have on the ongoing deliberations of the Supreme Court in a major decision on abortion law in Northern Ireland and the forthcoming abortion referendum in the Republic of Ireland,” said spokeswoman Dawn McEvoy.
“We do not see why the departments were required to release the report at this time and it is hard not to be cynical about the choice of timing.”
A spokesperson for the departments said: “The publication of reports is considered on a case by case basis.”
In this case, they said, both departments reviewed the public interest in publishing the report and found that the need to preserve time and space for ministers “no longer carried sufficient weight”.
UUP MLA Doug Beattie said he had repeatedly called for the report to be published while Stormont was sitting.
“Now that the report has at long last been published it makes for sobering but thought-provoking reading,” he said.
The DUP warned of “unintended consequences” of any law change, while the SDLP said it would “carefully consider the findings”. The report was welcomed by Sinn Fein and the Alliance Party.
The report signals a potentially more unsettled future for the matter in Northern Ireland.
It is understood that even if a reformed Executive blocked the report’s recommendation, it would likely progress to an Assembly vote as a private members bill.
In the current climate it is understood it would have a good chance of passing; however, the DUP may still block it with a petition of concern.
There is also the possibility that the UK government may consider implementing the change from Westminster in the absence of an Executive, but there has not been a recent appetite for such radical intervention.
The issue made headlines in 2013 when Sarah Ewart went public about travelling to England for an abortion after being told her unborn child had no chance of survival. Her mother Jane Christie yesterday welcomed the report.
She said: “We have always said that any woman that wants to go through the birth should be supported, but there are ones like Sarah that don’t and they also should be supported.” Travelling to England for an abortion makes the issue even harder, she added.