Fears over UK Government commitment to Northern Ireland abortion reforms

Abortion reforms in Northern Ireland risk being slowly unpicked by UK ministers, the Commons has heard.

Northern Ireland minister Robin Walker confirmed Westminster is legally required to allow access to abortion and same-sex marriage unless the Northern Ireland executive is formed by October 21.

He added the UK and Irish governments both believe there “remains an opportunity in the coming days” to reach an agreement over the executive, with Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith remaining in Belfast to continue talks with the parties.

And Mr Walker claimed the UK Government has taken steps to ensure it is ready to meet its obligations in relation to the reforms required, although Labour’s Stella Creasy (Walthamstow) was among those MPs to raise concerns.

Ms Creasy said it was unclear how women in Northern Ireland who might need an abortion will be able to access that service and warned the UK Government has created confusion.

Speaking in the Commons, Ms Creasy said she believes all MPs want to see the Stormont assembly and executive up and running, before adding: “But we also think it’s important that the women of Northern Ireland deserve some honesty about what is going to happen to their human rights.

“Human rights that we pledged in July in this House to uphold, and now tonight the minister has shown what most of us feared might happen – the slow unpicking of the commitment this House made to make sure we treated all UK citizens equally when it came to their ability to make choices about their own body.”

Ms Creasy said women’s rights have become a “bargaining chip in the Brexit process”, and said there had been a lack of involvement between the Government and women’s groups over the issue but claimed “it’s very clear they’re listening to the churches”.

She added: “We cannot tell women next Tuesday, who might need an abortion in Northern Ireland, how they will access that service.”

Ms Creasy also said: “I tell the minister now, just as I tell those protesters in my constituency, they won’t stop us from standing up and fighting for the rights of women in Northern Ireland to be treated as equally and fairly.”

DUP MP Jim Shannon (Strangford) said he has been left “utterly speechless” by the abortion proposals for Northern Ireland from next week, adding: “It means from Tuesday some unborn animals subject to research will have more statutory protection in Northern Ireland thanks to the Animal (Scientific Procedures) Act than some unborn human beings.

“It’s absolutely unbelievable that anyone should do this and the honourable members need to look at themselves very, very seriously. Deeply troubling.”

In July, MPs passed the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Act.

It placed a duty on the Government to regulate to provide for access to abortion in Northern Ireland, with regulations required to be in place by the end of March 2020.

Terminations are only allowed in cases where a woman’s life is at risk or if there is a danger of permanent and serious damage to her mental or physical health.

The changes were passed as part of measures aimed at keeping Northern Ireland public services running, two and a half years after devolved powersharing collapsed.

Opening the debate, Mr Walker said: “Should no executive be formed by the October 21 deadline set out in the Northern Ireland Executive Formation Act, this Government is under a statutory duty to change the law in Northern Ireland on access to abortion services, to introduce same-sex marriage and opposite sex civil partnerships, and also to introduce a new victims’ payment scheme.”

He added the Government would prefer the Northern Ireland Assembly to consider the reforms to abortion law, noting: “In the absence of a restored assembly and executive the Secretary of State has taken steps to ensure the Government is ready to ensure its obligations.”

Mr Walker continued: “The Government then has a duty to introduce a new legal framework to come into force from March 31 2020. It is worth noting that during this interim period from October 22 until the new legal framework comes into place on March 31, other relevant laws relating to the termination of pregnancy will remain in place.”

He went on: “From October 22, women resident in Northern Ireland can continue to access services in England, and will now have all their travel, and where needed accommodation costs met by the UK Government.”

“Healthcare professionals will be able to lawfully refer patients to services in England by providing the details of the central booking service, or directing them to information on gov.uk.”

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