Once again, we find abortion has made the headlines in Northern Ireland, with the BBC reporting yesterday that Westminster was beginning the process of commissioning abortion services in Northern Ireland.
This would see the Secretary of State, Brandon Lewis, step in and impose the commissioning of abortion despite the rule of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
In essence this would result in a region-wide roll out of abortion services meaning that Northern Ireland would have the most liberal abortion laws in Europe, not just on paper but in reality. Women could have a late term abortion in the case of a severe fetal impairment, including for Down's Syndrome and Cleft Palette, and abortion on demand up to 24 weeks gestation.
While there are some who will see the commissioning of abortion services as ‘progress’ or a ‘step in the right direction’ for Northern Ireland, I want to look at the bigger picture and address the very dangerous precedent that is being set, one which could have wide-ranging devastating consequences for Northern Ireland. To say nothing of the sad reality this would also be for unborn children in Northern Ireland.
I have three main concerns with this decision and the impact it could have on Northern Ireland:
1. This decision undermines the Good Friday Agreement
The Good Friday Agreement was significant for the people of Northern Ireland for several reasons and is considered a milestone in implementing the peace process. It provided for the creation of an elected Assembly to be responsible for local or devolved matters. This includes abortion and the commissioning of abortion services.
Brandon Lewis’ decision to run roughshod over the Assembly’s mandated powers through the Agreement is an affront to it and the people of Northern Ireland. Furthermore, this is a potential threat to the much longed-for peace that we currently enjoy in Northern Ireland.
2. Against the Will of the people
This decision to overstep the authority of the Assembly is also against the will of the people of Northern Ireland. In 2019, 79% of people who responded to the government’s consultation were opposed to changing the abortion laws, yet these opinions have been ignored and once again we are being subjected to the whim of Westminster.
This decision sends a clear and unequivocal message to the people of Northern Ireland: we do not respect you, we do not respect Northern Ireland, and we do not respect your legislative assembly.
3. Where will the Secretary of State stop?
An important issue to consider is that this power that the Secretary of State has been granted is not exclusively to the provision of abortion services. These powers will actually extend beyond that, extending to any Minister when it comes to implementing UN recommendations on abortion for Northern Ireland. This means, for example, that he will have the power to direct compulsory education on abortion or promote compulsory advertising campaigns.
However, an important question to ask is, where will this power stop? The precedent has been set: what is to prevent the Secretary of State from making decisions on other devolved matters and gradually eroding away the Assembly’s right to decide on Northern Ireland’s devolved issues.
This is a step backwards
As a Christian woman living in Northern Ireland, I do not see the forced commissioning of abortion services as a step forward or an advancement of reproductive rights. I see it as a step backwards for the rights of the unborn and a sad reflection of the Westminster government’s opinion of the Northern Ireland Assembly and their ability to govern, so central to the Good Friday Agreement. Do not be fooled this is not something to be celebrated. We should be weary of the future decisions that the Secretary of State may now have the capacity to make.