LEICESTER, United Kingdom – Northern Ireland’s Catholic bishops say they are “deeply concerned” over plans of the British government to force the Northern Ireland Minister of Health to implement “some of the most extreme and liberal abortion services on these islands.”
Last week, the Guardian reported the UK Northern Ireland secretary, Brandon Lewis, directed the Northern Ireland Department of Health to commission more widespread abortion services.
The UK Parliament unilaterally removed pro-life protections from Northern Ireland when it passed the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Act in October 2019.
Northern Ireland was the only part of the UK or the island of Ireland where abortion remained against the law; England, Scotland and Wales legalized it in 1967; the Republic of Ireland voted to remove pro-life language in a 2018 referendum.
The UK Parliament was able to legislate for abortion due to the years-long deadlock that kept a Northern Irish government from being formed, which lead to the Northern Ireland Assembly being suspended. A compromise was reached, and the Northern Ireland Executive was re-formed on Jan. 11, 2020.
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The Guardian reported that there was “frustration and disappointment” from the British authorities over the failure of the Northern Ireland Executive – reformed shortly after Westminster made its abortion intervention – to fully implement the new legislation. Although abortions are currently being provided in Northern Ireland, the Health Ministry hasn’t established a centralized procedure for obtaining the procedure in the region.
The Catholic bishops said the move by the London Parliament violated the Good Friday Agreement that ended “the Troubles” in Northern Ireland that led to the deaths of more than 3,500 people.
The statement was signed by Archbishop Eamon Martin, Archbishop of Armagh & Primate of All-Ireland; Bishop Noel Treanor, Bishop of Down and Connor; Bishop Donal McKeown, Bishop of Derry; Bishop Larry Duffy, Bishop of Clogher; and Bishop Michael Router, the Auxiliary Bishop of Armagh.
“This is the latest in a line of unilateral interventions by the current Westminster Government to portray a reckless disregard for the fragile checks and balances of the international peace settlement between these islands. Such a development should be a matter of grave concern for anyone who upholds the principle of devolution at the heart of the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement,” the bishops said in a statement Monday.
“What Westminster seeks to impose, against the clear will of a majority of people here, is a law which blatantly undermines the right to life of unborn children and promotes an abhorrent and indefensible prejudice against persons with disabilities, even before they are born,” the bishops added.
The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) – which leads the Northern Ireland Executive and is pro-life – said they would oppose the move by the UK Northern Ireland secretary.
“This is an over-reach of the Secretary of State’s powers. This is a health issue and therefore it is for our health minister to bring forward suggested regulations on the commissioning of services,” Carla Lockhart, a DUP member of the UK Parliament, told the BBC Sunday Politics Program.
“Westminster has done what is required of them. If you actually look at the legislation, it mentions the Department of Health in terms of commissioning, therefore, it is not for them to get involved in this issue,” she said.
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“This is a devolved issue, it is a health issue, and therefore health is wholly the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Executive,” Lockhart told the BBC.
In their statement, the Northern Irish bishops said “the equal right to life of every mother and her unborn baby must always be upheld and protected.”
“An important mark of any humane and compassionate society is our ability to work through difficult challenges in a way which is life affirming, not life destroying. As followers of Jesus, we believe that as a human family we have the capacity to love and care for one another, especially for mothers facing crisis in pregnancy, in a way that does not involve bringing about the death and destruction of vulnerable children in the womb,” the statement said.
The abortion policy imposed on Northern Ireland is more liberal than the rest of the United Kingdom, allowing for abortion on demand in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, and up to 24 weeks for undefined mental or physical health reasons. If an unborn child is considered disabled, abortion is allowed up to birth, although the Northern Ireland Assembly overturned this provision last week.
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Abortions in the rest of the UK generally must take place in hospitals and be performed by doctors, but the Northern Ireland law allows abortions to take place in doctors’ offices and be performed by nurses and midwives.
The law also limits the right of conscientious objection of medical personnel in an area where both main Christian traditions object to abortion on moral grounds. In fact, when the British government did a public consultation on the proposed abortion regulations in December, 79 percent of the people opposed changing the pro-life laws.
The bishops said the abortion regulations introduced by the UK government – against the will of the majority of the people in Northern Ireland – “are predicated on the assumption that the unborn child in the womb has no right to love, care and protection from society, unless the child is wanted. None of us acquire our humanity, or our fundamental right to existence, on the basis of whether or not we are wanted.”
The bishops called on members of the Northern Ireland Assembly to “speak out against the extreme and profoundly discriminatory nature of these abortion regulations, which the Secretary of State seeks to impose over their heads.”
“This is not a time for silence or strategic opting out. We ask you, as our locally elected representatives, not to meekly acquiesce in this effort to bypass internationally agreed devolved structures. We appeal to you to publicly defend the rights of all children in the womb to be treated equally and to have their right and that of their mothers to love, care and protection by our society respected and upheld,” they said.
Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome