The Northern Ireland Assembly has rejected provisions put forward by Westminster MPs that would permit abortions up to birth in cases of non-fatal disabilities. On Tuesday, a DUP motion rejecting an "imposition" of new abortion regulations was approved by MLAs in a vote of 46-40.
The vote does not affect the legalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland as a whole, which was voted in last October while Stormont remained inactive due to long-running disagreements between the two leading parties - Sinn Fein and the DUP.
The motion did not reject the entirety of the new proposals but made particular reference to the termination of unborn baby's with non-fatal disabilities such as Down Syndrome.
DUP MLA Paul Givan was delighted at the voting outcome, noting that the Assembly "has now rejected these extreme abortion regulations on the basis of how they discriminate against the unborn especially those with disabilities."
He continued: "The regulations imposed by Westminster have led to Northern Ireland having the most liberal abortion regime in Europe.
“This approach undermined the devolution settlement, but worst of all facilitated the ending of so many precious lives. That is something that the majority of people here in Northern Ireland are against.”
On Thursday, Northern Ireland Secretary, Brandon Lewis, confirmed that the UK Government will not be changing Northern Ireland abortion regulations in response to the latest vote. He also added that any changes made to abortion provisions by the Assembly must comply with the UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).
Labour MP Stella Creasy, who has been a lead campaigner for the legalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland, attended a debate on the matter in the House of Commons yesterday while cradling her young baby daughter.
During her remarks, she warned that Northern Ireland's determination to preside over its devolved affairs "doesn't absolve us of our responsibility to uphold the human rights of every UK citizen," and urged that the Assembly "should be to come up with its alternative proposals if it doesn’t like these regulations."
She added that "to not propose these regulations would mean further delay and possibly women making unsafe choices in Northern Ireland because there isn’t clarity about what services are available to them.”
Sinn Fein MLA Emma Sheerin disagreed with the DUP's attempts to thwart the provisions and insisted that the traditionally pro-life party was “blocking access to modern, compassionate healthcare."
She added: “The motion as put forward by the DUP is quite obviously an attempt to undermine the entirety of the abortion provision which has thus far been put into law in the north of Ireland."
With Sinn Fein courting much of the Catholic vote in Northern Ireland, many remain confused by its policy position on the controversial issue. Sheerin clarified that her party's position is "one which calls for a compassionate and reasonable approach to healthcare, but not one that would see abortion treated as a mainstream, normal option.”
In addition, Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald tweeted that her party "wants those same rights secured for women in the South to be delivered in the North. Nobody left behind.”
Catherine Robinson, of Right to Life UK, said: “Tonight’s vote has made it clear that the UK Government must urgently hand back this devolved matter to the elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland at the Assembly.
“The UK Government and Westminster now have absolutely no mandate whatsoever to impose these extreme regulations on Northern Ireland.”
However, pro-choice campaigners Amnesty International sought to highlight that the vote "has no impact on the abortion law or regulations in Northern Ireland."
The group added: "Although this sends a disappointing message that some MLAs are not willing to stand fully for human rights, women and girls should rest assured that the hard-won abortion reform remains intact.”
In response to the latest vote, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales said, that “whilst this vote will not directly change the law in Northern Ireland, it does send a strong message that this decision should be made in Northern Ireland, not in Westminster.”
The Bishops' Conference added: “It can’t be right that this is going to be imposed by Westminster against the wishes of the people of Northern Ireland and their Assembly.”
In a letter to Members of the Northern Ireland Legislative Assembly prior to the vote, the Bishops of Northern Ireland called on politicians “to defend the equal right of children with disabilities to appropriate protection and care both before and after birth, as enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child."