‘Darkest day’ – Abortion legalized in Northern Ireland, after deadlock in devolved legislature
Northern Ireland's devolved legislature failed Monday to block a change to the region's law imposed by the British parliament. As a result, both abortion and same-sex marriage will now be legal in the region. Same-sex marriages are expected to begin taking place in Northern Ireland by February 2020, while the new abortion law is set to take effect by April 2020.
Previously, abortion was legally permitted in Northern Ireland only if the mother’s life was at risk or if there was risk of permanent, serious damage to her mental or physical health.
The British parliament passed the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 in July, with amendments legalizing abortion and same-sex marriage.
That act took effect Oct. 22 because the Northern Ireland Assembly, which has been suspended the past two years due to a dispute between the two major governing parties, was not able to do business by Oct. 21.
Pro-life members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, largely comprised of members of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), recalled the assembly Monday for the first time since January 2017 in order to block the relaxed abortion restrictions. The DUP favors union with the UK and is known to be a right-of-center political party on many issues.
Arlene Foster, the DUP leader, told The Guardian that she hoped the recall would allow assembly members to debate the issue at the local level, and would allow those opposed to the changes officially to voice their opposition.
However, in order for the assembly to make any binding changes, the election of a speaker of the assembly with cross-party support was required. This proved impossible when the nationalist Social Democratic Labour Party walked out of the Oct. 21 meeting, the BBC reported. The assembly also would have needed to form an executive (similar to an administration), which could also not be done without cross-party presence and support.
Members of the assembly from Sinn Fein, a left-of-center nationalist party, as well as the Green Party and People Before Profit did not participate in the Oct. 21 session.
Incumbent speaker Robin Newton, a member of the DUP, also went against party leader Foster and refused to suspend normal assembly rules to allow for the introduction of the Defence of the Unborn Child Bill 2019, a DUP initiative that, had it passed by midnight, could have blocked the new abortion law.
Foster called it a “shameful day” for Northern Ireland, according to the BBC.
Mary Lou McDonald, leader of Sinn Féin, celebrated the “decriminalisation of women that will take effect from midnight,” the BBC reported.
Abortion has been legal in the rest of the United Kingdom up to 24 weeks since 1967, and it was legalized in the Republic of Ireland in 2018. Same-sex marriage has been legal in the rest of the UK since 2014.
Pressure to legalize abortion in Northern Ireland increased after a 2018 referendum legalized abortion in the Republic of Ireland. Bills to legalize abortion in cases of fatal fetal abnormality, rape, or incest failed in the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2016.
Some pro-life activists protested outside the Stormont Northern Ireland Assembly, on 21 October 2019.
In September, religious leaders of Northern Ireland called on Ireland Secretary Julian Smith to reconvene the local legislative assembly in order to block the new liberalizing abortion laws.
“Our Northern Ireland political parties have it in their own hands to do something about this,” the religious leaders said in a Sept. 30 joint statement.
“There is no evidence that these [legal] changes reflect the will of the people affected by them, as they were not consulted. They go far beyond the ‘hard cases’ some have been talking about,” the statement added.
Signatories of the statement included leaders of the Catholic Church, the Church of Ireland, Methodist Church in Ireland, Presbyterian Church in Ireland, and the Irish Council of Churches.
The Northern Ireland Catholic bishops’ conference previously condemned the move by the British Parliament as an “unprecedented” use of authority in the region.
Earlier this month, the High Court in Belfast had ruled that the region’s ban on the abortion of unborn children with fatal abnormalities violated the UK’s human rights commitments.
From September, tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Belfast to protest the impending change to abortion restrictions in the region.