LEICESTER, United Kingdom – Catholic bishops in Northern Ireland said the defeat of a bill that would have prevented late term abortions for non-fatal disabilities in unborn children “will send a message to all citizens that unborn disabled babies, are fundamentally less valued than those who are able-bodied.”

The Northern Ireland Assembly in Belfast voted against the Severe Fetal Impairment Abortion (Amendment Bill) NI last week by a vote of by 45 to 42.

“The effect of similar legislation in other parts of the world has been to screen out of existence an entire sector of humanity,” the Northern Ireland bishops wrote in a Dec. 21 statement. “This is the opposite of a commitment to equality, professed by so many who support this unjust legislation.”

The UK Parliament unilaterally removed pro-life protections from Northern Ireland when it passed the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Act 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 legislation 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.

The London-imposed abortion regime for 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.

The regulations went into effect on March 31, 2020.

“It is a matter of grave concern for all those who uphold the preciousness and dignity of every human life that the current legal framework in Northern Ireland permits abortion, to the point of birth, where an unborn child is found to be suffering from a serious but non-life-threatening disability,” said the bishops in their most recent statement.

“The nature of such a disability is not defined in our legislation but will include conditions such as Down’s Syndrome. The effect of similar legislation in other parts of the world, especially in Scandinavia, has been to screen out of existence an entire sector of humanity.”

The abortion debate has created strange political bedfellows in Northern Ireland. Sinn Féin, the Nationalist political party long associated with the Irish Republican Army and drawing most of its support from the Catholic population, is strongly pro-abortion. Although the party rejects British rule in Northern Ireland – members elected to the national parliament in London refuse to take their seats since it involves an oath to the queen – its leaders didn’t oppose the central government imposing abortion on the province.

“Westminster had to legislate for abortion services in the North because of the blockages created by the DUP, the very same people attempting to roll back on the progress made,” Sinn Féin Vice President Michelle O’Neill said during the debate over the Severe Fetal Impairment Abortion.

The DUP is the main Unionist party stressing Northern Ireland’s relationship with the rest of the United Kingdom. It draws most of its membership from Northern Ireland’s Presbyterian population and is the only major party in Northern Ireland with a strong pro-life platform. It has strongly opposed London’s interference in the province’s traditionally pro-life legal regime.

“We are a pro-life party. Every life must be valued,” Christopher Stalford, a DUP member of the Assembly, told the BBC.

“That [Assembly members] rejected this, is deeply worrying and sends an awful message about the value the Northern Ireland Assembly places on the life of an unborn disabled child,” he said.

“We will continue to advocate for the policies which encourage the preservation of life both in the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Northern Ireland Executive,” Stalford added.

In their message, the Northern Ireland bishops called the bill a “measured and reasonable” attempt to address the “injustice” of the current “discrimination against unborn children with non-fatal disabilities.”

“Its defeat in the Northern Ireland Assembly represents a profound and fundamental failure to respect the equality of all persons, born and unborn, in our society,” the bishops said.

“To dispose of unborn human beings on the grounds that they are disabled is morally abhorrent and indefensible in a civilized society. Laws that discriminate unjustly against persons with disabilities at any time, including the time they spend in their mother’s womb, are completely unacceptable,” they continued.

The bishops also claimed the current law means that parents who choose to continue with a pregnancy when the unborn child has been diagnosed with a disability “could also face the prospect of being discriminated against when it comes to accessing medical care, education and financial support for their child.”

“Therefore, every effort must be made to ensure that children with disabilities and their families are treated justly with regard to the allocation of resources and funding.  It is the least they can expect in a society which claims to value respect and compassion in the treatment of all its citizens,” they said.

Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome