Bill to bar abortions of disabled foetuses up to birth voted down at Stormont

A bid to exclude cases of foetal impairment from abortion laws in Northern Ireland has fallen following a close vote at Stormont.

File photo dated 23/11/21 of Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill who has accused The DUP and Ulster Unionists of denying abortion services to women in Northern Ireland. Ms O'Neill made her comments at Stormont during the consideration stage of a DUP Private Member's Bill aimed at outlawing abortions being carried out in cases of serious non-fatal disabilities.
File photo dated 23/11/21 of Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill who has accused The DUP and Ulster Unionists of denying abortion services to women in Northern Ireland. Ms O'Neill made her comments at Stormont during the consideration stage of a DUP Private Member's Bill aimed at outlawing abortions being carried out in cases of serious non-fatal disabilities.

A bill to legally bar women from terminating a pregnancy because the baby would be born disabled has been voted down at Stormont.

Christopher Stalford, the DUP MLA who sponsored the bill, said the vote sends “an awful message to the disabled”, whilst opponents of the ban like the Alliance MLA Paula Bradshaw said it was a “significant day for trusting women”.

The bill was introduced in February of this year by the now-First Minister Paul Givan, and last night was rejected after a debate in Stormont’s main chamber.

It basically sought to undo – in part – some of the new abortion rules the Tory government imposed upon NI last year.

These rules allowed for:

• Abortion for any reason up to 12 weeks;

• Abortion up to 24 weeks when “continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman or girl, greater than the risk of terminating the pregnancy”;

• And abortions with no time limit “to prevent grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman or girl” – and in cases where a foetus has “a mental or physical disability which is likely to significantly limit either the length or quality of the child’s life”.

Specifically, the law says this about disabilities: “A registered medical professional may terminate a pregnancy where two registered medical professionals are of the opinion, formed in good faith, that there is a substantial risk that the condition of the fetus is such that:

“(a) the death of the fetus is likely before, during or shortly after birth; or

“(b) if the child were born, it would suffer from such physical or mental impairment as to be seriously disabled.”

Basically Mr Stalford’s bill would have removed clause (b).

In other words, the DUP man’s bill would have let abortions happen up to birth if it was expected a child would die outside the womb, but not in cases where a disabled child was able to live.

Opening the debate, Michelle O’Neill told the chamber: “The first thing to say is that the women of this island have waited long enough to access modern and compassionate abortion services.

“That is an undeniable, indisputable and appalling fact.

“Yet here we are today... the DUP and the health minister continue to hold up and deny that essential healthcare service to women and girls who need it.”

Paul Givan told the house that the bill would have souught to protect “a baby with Down’s syndrome, a cleft palate or a club foot”.

“The Bill is not as some members have portrayed it,” he said. It is not about playing fast and loose with human rights. On the contrary, human rights and the rights of people with disabilities stand at the heart of it.”

Meanwhile DUP colleague Deborah Erskine declared: “A country’s abortion laws would be totally condemned if they singled out babies on the grounds of gender or skin colour.

“But, because it is a disability, such as Down’s syndrome, it is somehow viewed as acceptable.”

In the end the bill was voted down by 45 MLAs to 42.

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