Northern Irish Church Leaders Criticize Abortion Law Changes

By Mark Michael

The Archbishop of Armagh, the Church of Ireland’s primate, criticized pending radical changes in Northern Ireland’s abortion laws in a joint statement issued September 30 with the senior leaders of the region’s Roman Catholic, Methodist and Presbyterian churches.  July legislation passed by the UK Parliament will abolish the current laws, Western Europe’s most restrictive, by October 20, unless the deadlocked Northern Irish Assembly is able to move toward reopening.

The church leaders criticized the lack of a popular mandate for the change: “There is no evidence that these changes reflect the will of the people affected by them, as they were not consulted.”  They summon their people to prayer “for the protection of the unborn in our society and also for women facing difficult and challenging pregnancies” during the weekend of October 12-13.

They also exhort regional political leaders to take action: “Our Northern Ireland political parties have it in their own hands to do something about this. They all need to take risks and make the compromises necessary to find an accommodation that will restore the devolved institutions.” Specifically, they urge the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to call the assembly together before the Westminster law’s October 21 deadline “to provide an opportunity for the parties to take the necessary steps both to prevent these laws coming onto effect and to find a better Northern Ireland solution for these challenging issues.”

Abortion laws, like other forms of health legislation, are “transferred matters” under UK law, devolved to the regional assemblies.  The Northern Irish Assembly, known as Stormont, has been unable to form a government since January 2017, when its coalition government broke apart and executive Martin McGuinness resigned under a cloud of scandal.  During such lapses in regional governance, which have happened five times since Stormont was established in 1998, the UK Parliament in Westminster may legislate about such transferred matters.

Abortion was legalized in Northern Ireland in 1945, but is only allowed in circumstances when it would save the life of the mother or when the pregnancy poses a risk of serious and permanent damage to the mental or physical health of the mother. Procedures outside these restrictions are criminal offenses. According to a BBC report, from 2017-2018, 44 pregnancies were terminated in Northern Ireland, a region with a population of 2 million. Just over a thousand more Northern Irish women had abortions in other parts of the United Kingdom.

The law passed in Westminster would decriminalize abortion, and allow unrestricted access to the procedure within 28 weeks of conception. It requires the regional government to implement the recommendations of a 2018 report issued by the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, which rules in favor of permitting abortion in cases of rape, incest and fetal abnormality and legalizing abortion in any circumstances in which a woman’s health would be impaired.

The Northern Irish church leaders’ statement notes that the Westminster legislation “offers no specific protection for unborn babies with disability; does not prohibit abortion based on the sex of the baby; [and] creates a potential vacuum of up to five months in Northern Ireland for unregulated abortion to exist with all the attendant health risks to women.  The resulting abortion regime would be even less restrictive than the current laws in the Republic of Ireland, where abortion was legalized by popular referendum in May 2015. The Church of Ireland encompasses both the UK’s Northern Ireland and the independent Republic of Ireland.

Archbishop Richard Clarke of Armagh had joined with Archbishop Michael Jackson of Dublin to issue a statement opposing abortion legislation in the Republic of Ireland a few months before the public referendum there. They wrote,” unrestricted access to abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, or indeed at any stage, is not an ethical position we can accept. There is, for Christians, a very clear witness in the Scriptures that all human life, including before physical birth, has a sacred dignity in the eyes of God”.

“The tradition of the Church of Ireland would reject an unrestricted access to abortion,” they continued, “while being concerned to ensure provision for hopefully rare circumstances and in a secure medical setting. Where individuals draw such a line will inevitably differ. Instances where the life of the woman is at serious risk have long been regarded within Church of Ireland teaching as situations where termination of a pregnancy would be justifiable. For some, pregnancy after sexual crime or the medical certainty of fatal fetal abnormality might also be seen as circumstances where abortion could be considered as justified.”

An October 2018 poll of 1000 Northern Irish adults commissioned by advocacy group Amnesty International found that 65% of people in Northern Ireland believe that abortion should be decriminalized. A slightly larger poll conducted a week later by Com Res, an international research consultancy, found that 64% of  people in Northern Ireland, including two-thirds of Northern Irish women believed that any changes to the abortion laws should be made by Stormont and not by Westminster.

Several rounds of talks aimed at forming a government for the Northern Irish Assembly have failed. The majority Democratic Ulster Unionist Party defines itself a pro-life party and opposes decriminalization. The opposition Sinn Fein party supports the Westminster law.


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