A last-minute attempt to halt the introduction of a liberal abortion regime and same sex marriage in Northern Ireland ended in failure on Monday.
In spite of opposition by politicians and the public, at midnight on Monday, new liberal laws on abortion will come into force and gay marriage will be legalised.
The new regulations governing the provision of abortion will not be ready until the end of March 2020 which means that during the intervening five months, abortion will be unregulated.
According to Christian Action Research and Education (CARE) there will now be “next to no legal protections for women or babies and abortion will also be legal on the grounds of disability or gender”.
The recall of Stormont Assembly for the first time in two and a half years was spearheaded by members of the Legislative Assembly opposed to abortion who were seeking to halt the decriminalisation of abortion by fast-tracking private members’ legislation, the Defence of the Unborn Child Bill 2019.
In July, MPs at Westminster passed legislation requiring the British government to liberalise abortion and introduce same sex marriage to Northern Ireland if devolution was not restored in Northern Ireland by 21 October. Stormont was suspended in January 2017.
Without agreement on a speaker, Stormont’s business on Monday could not proceed. The role of speaker must be agreed by both sides, nationalists and unionists.
During Monday’s proceedings, no member of Sinn Féin attended the sitting and members of the nationalist SDLP left the chamber, meaning a speaker could not be elected and the legislation to block abortion could not proceed.
Following the collapse of Monday’s sitting at Stormont, the leader of the DUP, Arlene Foster criticised what had happened, saying it was a “shameful day” as Northern Ireland would have the most “liberal abortion laws anywhere in Europe”.
In a statement, CARE said the new abortion laws marked a radical shift from Northern Ireland’s previous law on abortion which it claimed had saved 100,000 lives.
“The new laws were imposed on Northern Ireland by MPs and Peers at Westminster and a recent survey by Lucid Talk revealed the majority of people in NI do not support the new regime,” said CARE .
Chief executive Nola Leach said: “This is not progress; it is a retrograde step. Abortion will now be legal in Northern Ireland on the grounds of disability and gender, there will be no effective regulation until at least March 2020 and even that is not guaranteed. The people of Northern Ireland deserve more than this.”
In a statement ahead of the Stormont’s recall, Bishop Larry Duffy of the diocese of Clogher, which straddles both sides of the border, said the political impasse in Northern Ireland had gone on for too long and had “been cynically manipulated by the parliament at Westminster to remove legal protection for unborn babies in Northern Ireland up to 28 weeks in their mother’s womb”.
Up to now, the law governing abortion in Northern Ireland has been different to England, Scotland and Wales.
Currently, a termination is only permitted in Northern Ireland if a woman’s life is at risk or if there is a risk of permanent and serious damage to her mental or physical health.