In 2019, while the NI Assembly was suspended, MPs controversially voted to relax abortion legislation in NI, bringing it closer to the legal position of GB. However NI Executive ministers have not reached agreement on developing full service provision for abortion across NI and women are still travelling to GB for terminations.
So last month Mr Lewis laid The Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2021 in Parliament, giving him power to direct the NI Executive and public health bodies to develop abortion services across NI.
The legislation commits the government to implementaing in full the recommendations for NI on abortion from the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).
Today MPs on the First Delegated Legislation Committee debated Mr Lewis’ regulations for over two hours but in the end passed them by 13 votes to three.
Northern Ireland Office Minister of State Robin Walker said there had been some 1100 abortions in NI last year but that many women are still travelling to GB for terminations.
Labour MP Diana Johnson noted that in the past three months, three different health trusts in NI have suspended abortion services due to shortages of staff and resources, resulting in what she quoted Amnesty International as calling “a postcode lottery” in provision.
But Tory MP Miriam Cates said Mr Lewis’ regulations breach the Good Friday Agreement and that the intervention by MPs into the matter was rejected by both the NI Assembly and almost 80% of respondants to a statutory consultation.
She also took issue with the CEDAW recommendations on abortion for NI which commit government to adopt “a strategy to combat gender-based stereotypes regarding women’s primary role as mothers”. She called for the repeal of the legislation in light of the fact the Assembly is now sitting - which the goverment flatly rejected.
Opponents of the legislation repeatedly argued that the government had initially claimed the CEDAW recommendations constituted a legal requirement on the UK, but said the government’s latest documentation conceded that this was untrue.
However supporters of the regulations pointed out that the Supreme Court had decided that NI’s abortion legislation was in breach of the European Convention of Human Rights, though critics said this had been challened by the Attorney General.
Critics also noted the CEDAW recommendations included a commitment to roll out compulsory sex education in NI schools, teaching children how to access abortions, and that the CEDWA recommendations also call for pro-life protestors to be banned from the vicinity of abortion clinics in NI.
DUP MP Carla Lockhart said: “Despite what has previously been claimed, it is clear that these regulations are not a requirement of international law.
“With the devolution restored, each time these powers [to impose laws on NI] are used the Government sends out the message that the Northern Ireland Assembly and our present constitutional arrangements are not fit for purpose.”
She added: “MPs should recognise the enormous damage they are inflicting upon the credibility of devolution by repeatedly using a regulation making power designed for a time when Stormont was suspended.”
Labour MP Karin Smyth read a brief statement from Alliance MP Stephen Farry, speaking of his “major frustration that ministers in the Executive feel they are above the law” in failing to commission full services for NI.
The North Down MP urged MPs to support the regulations on behalf of “the pro-choice majority” in Northern Ireland.
However DUP MP Jim Shannon said the treatment of the devolved assembly by Westminster on the matter had been “humiliating”.
In closing the debate minister Robin Walker said the government was giving Stormont “one more chance” before the summer recess to commission full abortion services across Northern Ireland or the government “will not hesitate” to direct it to do so.
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