Over the course of the next few weeks the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill will be passing through Parliament, designed to amend the date by which the Secretary of State must call an election.
The purpose is to allow party political talks to continue in efforts to form an Executive.
Several MPs attempted to amend this piece of legislation to allow for widespread access to abortion in Northern Ireland. By any ordinary reading of the Bill in question, the issue of abortion should not have been within scope. However, the authorities of the House of Commons decided otherwise.
An amendment by Stella Creasy MP was selected and the House of Commons last night voted in support her amendment. At the time of writing, it is not fully clear what precisely this amendment will mean for the law on abortion in Northern Ireland. However, it certainly could lead to the ‘decriminalisation’ of abortion in Northern Ireland, allowing for widespread access to abortion on request.
Abortion is a sensitive and complex issue which is part of the reason why decisions around it are devolved.
Meddling in such a sensitive issue at such a sensitive moment sets a constitutional precedent which could affect the devolution settlement in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland again in future, on a whole range of issues. In short this move is constitutionally insensitive and inappropriate.
The Northern Irish public have not been consulted upon around the detail of the amendment that was passed and this is not the way to pass legislation on such a sensitive social issue. Last minute amendments to a bill which is nothing to do abortion with no consultation with the society affected hardly seems an appropriate way to proceed.
The irony is that in a recent inquiry by the Women and Equalities Committee at Westminster 88% of submissions said no to Westminster imposing law change on abortion in Northern Ireland.
Existing law in Northern already allows for abortion in carefully limited circumstances. Contrary to many reports these circumstances have included instances of sexual crime (as per the Bourne case) and where the baby may not survive beyond birth.
This more limited law has led us to estimate that over 100,000 people are alive in Northern Ireland today because politicians here did not implement the 1967 Abortion Act. This figure was researched by the Both Lives Matter campaign and robustly tested and upheld by the Advertising Standards Authority.
Behind many of these moves to widen abortion law in Northern Ireland is the idea that abortion is the measure of progress for women in society.
Limited law change is never enough; that is not where the campaign for abortion is going.
The ultimate destination is based on the ideology that women are only as free as their ability to end the lives of their unwanted unborn children. This is a tragic vision for women where their ‘freedom’ can only be achieved by the devaluing of every future human being.
Many people see a much more positive vision for women and their unborn children. One where both lives are respected and can flourish together as far as humanly possible.
The abortion laws in Northern Ireland may not be perfect, maybe abortion laws will never be, but they hold together the life, health and dignity of both human beings in a careful and delicate relationship.
This is something we should be celebrating as foundational to our way of life together here as Catholic, Protestant and those of no faith.
It is too important to become a political football or circumvented by clever politicking at Westminster.
This vote at Westminster has been met with dismay in many quarters in Northern Ireland.
What can I promise is this – I believe ‘both lives matter’ always and as long as I am privileged to be an elected representative, I will stand up for that belief.
Carla Lockhart, DUP MLA for Upper Bann