Yesterday Parliamentarians in both Houses debated reports on the Northern Ireland (Executive Functions) Act, which passed through Parliament earlier this year.
One of these reports concerned the amendment which introduces a radical abortion law into Northern Ireland, unless the Assembly is restored by 21 October.
As this amendment states that the law will change overnight on 21 October, but that regulations governing abortion will not need to be in place until 31 March, this means that NI will effectively have a 5-month ‘limbo period’ where no regulation will apply.
What does this mean in practice?
The Government outlined that, as of 22 October, “the specific criminal law in Northern Ireland will fall away, and a criminal moratorium on prosecutions will come into place.”
One of the worst consequences of this is that no convictions will be able to be brought for forced abortions or if a woman is attacked and she miscarries, up to viability or potentially up to 28 weeks.
There will also be no requirements around where abortions can take place, and no inspection and notification requirements for abortion clinics, which means malpractice will be missed and women won’t be protected.
During this period, abortion in NI will only be regulated by guidance from medical bodies.
Several MPs and Peers highlighted their concerns with this limbo period.
Maria Miller MP, Chair of the Women & Equalities Committee, commented on the lack of services in NI ready to accommodate this change come March 2020:
“If the law is to be changed in March next year, as is currently outlined in statute, significant work must be done at all levels of the health service in Northern Ireland to ensure that it can deliver on what will be a coherent law at that stage.…how will the Secretary of State ensure scrutiny of those who will be developing the services necessary to implement the law as it will stand in March of next year or as it will stand when a Northern Ireland Executive come into place?”
Fiona Bruce MP spoke of how this limbo period will affect women in NI:
“This country has all manner of statutory checks to protect women, including the need for clinics to be vetted and registered, none of which will exist in Northern Ireland. How is that good for the health of women in Northern Ireland? I have heard it suggested that the bodies of the relevant health professions will self-police in the interim, but that is simply unacceptable."
I believe that this House has failed the people of Northern Ireland in this Act.”
Even Stella Creasy MP, the mover of the amendment, echoed these concerns:
"I agree with the concerns raised across the House about the interim period, and about what will happen when we decriminalise sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 on 22 October if the Assembly is not reconstituted."
In the Lords, Lord Empey spoke of the concern this has caused many in NI:
“I know that a lot of people are very concerned at the haphazard way in which this has been done. There are no regulations in place on 22 October, no matter what anybody says. While people will argue, “Well, the medical profession will do this and that”, why should we have to rely on them? We are a legislature. If we have something to say, we should say it and do it, instead of this back-to-front process that has been adopted, which, I have to say, has annoyed and deeply upset many very sincere people.”
Paying tribute to the people of NI
Several Parliamentarians paid tribute to those who protested the imposition of this law in Northern Ireland, and attested to the strength of feeling of the people of NI to protect life:
Nigel Dodds MP spoke of the “demonstrations and the silent, dignified marches and walks that took place in Belfast on Friday and Saturday, when tens of thousands of people turned out on the streets to demonstrate their concern about the way in which this House has undermined the devolution settlement when it comes to abortion by having this imposed without any proper consultation whatsoever. They remain concerned about how the consultation may be carried out and they simply want their rights to be respected.”
Lord Alton echoed this commendation in the Lords:
“Over the weekend in Northern Ireland thousands of people protested peacefully against the decision made here in July…In an exemplary, dignified and united way, right across the community citizens who believe that both lives in a pregnancy matter made their voices heard.
For so many living in Northern Ireland, what happened in this House and the other place made a mockery of democracy.”