With the Irish abortion referendum over, a new front opens for the abortion lobby: Northern Ireland.
On June 5, 2018, the British House of Commons had an emergency debate on the issue of abortion provision in Northern Ireland. As it did so, however, it became clear that there is a bigger picture emerging that the media is not reporting, or perhaps choosing not to report. Simply put, if the push for abortion liberalization in Northern Ireland is successful there will also be far-reaching consequences for the rest of the United Kingdom.
First, the obvious: following the referendum result, there have, predictably, been calls, from Sinn Féin, feminist groups, and a wide range of others in the Irish Republic, as well as the Labour Party and other politicians in Britain, for Northern Ireland’s strict abortion laws to be overturned. As pro-abortion campaigners are at pains to stress, Northern Ireland has the harshest criminal penalty for abortion anywhere in Europe. In theory, a sentence of life imprisonment can be handed to any woman who undergoes an unlawful abortion.
The Democratic Unionist Party leader and Northern Ireland’s First Minister, Arlene Foster, was quick to state after the referendum result that it had “no impact upon the law in Northern Ireland.” She pointed out that abortion was a matter for the Northern Ireland Assembly to “debate and decide”; it was a “devolved issue.”
Foster is correct. The impact, however, on the North, of the vote south of the Irish border, is not to be underestimated. In recent years, there have been increasing calls from British politicians and pro-abortion groups to extend the 1967 Act to Northern Ireland. The overwhelming result in the Republic’s referendum has given fuel to these calls, even if, technically, for Northern Ireland, the Irish vote is a domestic matter in a foreign jurisdiction.
After the Irish referendum result, British Prime Minister Theresa May came under pressure to scrap existing abortion laws in Northern Ireland. Pro-abortion groups and their Parliamentary supporters called for changes to what they termed the “anomalous” situation, in that it is different to that of the rest of the UK, with regard to abortion provision in Northern Ireland. The British 1967 Abortion Act permitted abortion in certain circumstances, but this Act was never extended to Northern Ireland.
Following the 1921 partition of Ireland, Northern Ireland remained part of the United Kingdom, with a measure of self-government. This was suspended in 1972 during the civil unrest of the “Troubles.” The 1998 Good Friday Agreement restored some degree of self-government to Northern Ireland’s locally elected assembly. One of the issues devolved was abortion. Within the current assembly there is a majority—mostly comprised of those within the traditionally Evangelical Christian DUP—who have no desire to see British abortion regulations coming to Northern Ireland.
From afar, Prime Minister May contrives ambivalence on the subject. After the landslide result in favor of legalizing abortion in the Irish Republic, she tweeted: “The Irish referendum was an impressive show of democracy which delivered a clear and unambiguous result. I congratulate the Irish people on their decision and all of #Together4Yes on their successful campaign.”
Beyond sending congratulatory tweets to Irish “Yes” voters, May is constrained not to do any more since she cannot afford to alienate the DUP. After the 2017 British General Election, May’s Conservative Government has no overall majority in the House of Commons. She needs the support of the ten DUP Members of Parliament to ensure that her administration in London does not collapse.
Therefore, echoing what the DUP leader had earlier made clear following the referendum, May’s official line is that: “Friday’s referendum has no impact upon the law in Northern Ireland.” She finesses however: “But we obviously take note of issues impacting upon our nearest neighbor,” going on to add: “The legislation governing abortion is a devolved matter and it is for the Northern Ireland Assembly to debate and decide such issues.”
One of the major players in this push to change the Northern Ireland abortion laws is Sinn Féin. The second largest political party there, it is increasingly gaining support in the Republic. Active in the North as well as the Irish Republic, the party’s political creed calls for the re-emergence of an Irish unitary state, and consequently the end of Northern Ireland. Although, traditionally, Sinn Féin has drawn support from Ireland’s Catholic population, in recent years, the party has been strident in their demand for abortion provision to be made available throughout Ireland—both north and south. This was evidenced nowhere more strongly than during the Republic’s abortion referendum. After the result was declared, Sinn Féin leaders held aloft a banner proclaiming: “The North is next!”
The DUP has few friends in British politics, and fewer still in Irish politics. For many, therefore, the issue of abortion is merely a welcome chance for political point-scoring against the DUP. For others, however, the Republic’s referendum has given much-needed oxygen to the political propaganda of the pro-abortion lobby in Northern Ireland and its allies in Britain. The issue of abortion is now framed with reference to DUP opposition, while that party—Protestant and right wing—is easily caricatured as out of step with current British liberal values.
Speaking of those liberal values, away from the media spotlight on Northern Ireland, a piece of legislation is quietly making its way through Parliament with, to date, little fanfare. The Labour MP, Stella Creasy, has tabled an amendment to the Domestic Abuse Bill currently before the UK’s House of Commons. Writing in The Guardian she says this of her amendment:
The forthcoming domestic violence bill is due to consider the Victorian Offences Against the Person Act, which criminalises women in this way. Repealing it would lay the foundation for a modern medical approach to abortion across the UK, including in Northern Ireland, which could put women’s safety at the heart of future legislation.
The proposed Creasy amendment is, therefore, not just about abortion provision in Northern Ireland. By removing the criminal law which underpins current British abortion legislation—Ss.58 and 59 of the Offenses Against the Person Act of 1861—abortion itself will be decriminalized throughout the United Kingdom, paving the way for what Creasy describes as “a modern medical approach to abortion across the UK.”
One of the UK’s biggest abortion providers, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, has sent the following communiqué to all Britain’s MPs:
I would like to stress that I am asking that you back moves to decriminalise abortion in Northern Ireland, as supported by medical experts and human rights bodies, NOT for a referendum nor an extension of the 1967 Abortion Act. Both these proposed solutions have been explicitly REJECTED by Northern Ireland civil society groups and medical organisations.
The 1967 Abortion Act legalized abortion only within certain narrowly defined circumstances, and abortion outside these limits remains a criminal act. This latest legislative move aims to decriminalize abortion across the UK.
The push for decriminalization is part of an ideological attempt to re-categorize abortion solely as a medical procedure with no ethical difference to any routine medical operation. In effect, decriminalization would remove any legal protection from all unborn children and, indeed, denies the very humanity of the unborn child. It is, therefore, also a push to re-categorize what it is to be human. And yet, as this proposition is slowly maneuvered through Parliament, there is no consultation, no media scrutiny, no public debate, and at the last election not a word about it in any party manifesto.
With all eyes turned to the pro-abortion publicity stunts currently taking place within Northern Ireland, few seem to be paying attention to the bigger picture quietly unfolding at the Palace of Westminster.
Maybe that’s the whole idea.
(Photo credit: Wikimedia)