The bishops of Northern Ireland have stepped up their opposition to new regulations on abortion imposed by Westminster while the Stormont Assembly was suspended.
In a letter to Members of Northern Ireland’s Legislative Assembly, the five bishops call on politicians to reformulate these “extreme Regulations” so that they reflect the position of the majority of the people in Northern Ireland.
Some 79 per cent of people in Northern Ireland who responded to a consultation conducted by the UK Government last December expressed a preference for regulations that protect the life of the unborn child, according to the Northern Ireland Office.
Despite this, a more liberal abortion regime than that in the rest of the UK was introduced on 31 March in Northern Ireland, allowing for abortion on demand up to 12 weeks and abortion up to birth in the case of fatal foetal abnormality. Abortion up to 24 weeks is also permitted if the pregnancy risks the physical or mental health of the woman.
Meanwhile, Northern Ireland’s attorney general John Larkin has said the Northern Secretary Brandon Lewis exceeded his powers in introducing these new abortion regulations.
In written evidence to a House of Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, Stormont’s chief legal adviser indicated that the legislation may not give adequate weight to the European Convention on Human Rights’ protection of the rights of those opposed to abortion on religious or philosophical grounds.
In his submission John Larkin said: “In my view, it is disproportionate in the Northern Irish context (and therefore contrary to article 9 of the Convention) to require those who undertake ancillary, administrative and managerial tasks to act contrary to their conscience for service maintenance reasons as set out in the consultation response (particularly when the anticipated impact could be avoided through commissioning a dedicated service).
“Providing for broader conscience protection in regulation 12 would have been possible and would have assisted with convention compliance by health and social care trusts,” Mr Larkin stated.
Northern Ireland’s attorney general also indicated that the local legislature should have a role in the legislation “in light of the changed political context”, a reference to the fact that Stormont is once again fully functional.
In their letter, the bishops say their opposition to the new regulations stems not only from the Church’s teaching on the protection of all life but also because abortion is a devolved matter for the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Highlighting the overreach of the new regulations, the bishops say the new rules ignore the fact that the Assembly in Stormont had clearly voted to retain Northern Ireland’s existing law on abortion.
“While we regard this to be an unjust law, which was imposed without the consent of the people of Northern Ireland, we are morally obliged, wherever possible, to do all we can to save the lives of unborn children, which could be lost through abortion, and to protect mothers from the pressures they might experience at the time of an unplanned pregnancy,” the letter states.
It is signed by Archbishop Eamon Martin and Bishop Michael Router of Armagh as well as Bishop Noel Treanor of Down and Connor, Bishop Donal McKeown of Derry and Bishop Larry Duffy of Clogher.
Referring to their statement of 31 March 2020 on the new abortion regime, the bishops reiterate their call to MLAs to debate the new Regulations “as a matter of urgency”.
In their March statement, the bishops underlined: “Politicians and all people of good will, who recognise the extreme nature of the regulations, should not meekly acquiesce to their promulgation.”
In their view the regulations exceed the requirements of the Northern Ireland Act 2019 and they argue that new regulations need to be formulated which “reflect more fully the will of a significant majority of the people in this jurisdiction to protect the lives of mothers and their unborn children”.