By Rebecca Black and Jonathan McCambridge, PA
A bid to exclude cases of fatal foetal impairment from abortion laws in Northern Ireland has fallen following a close vote at Stormont.
A private members bill, sponsored by DUP MLA Christopher Stalford, was designed to change abortion legislation brought by Westminster while the Stormont Assembly was collapsed in 2019.
Assembly members voted by a narrow margin against a key clause in the Severe Foetal Impairment Abortion (Amendment) Bill.
The bill had been at the consideration stage in the Assembly.
It now stands referred to the Speaker Alex Maskey and is not expected to progress any further.
Mr Stalford expressed disappointment at the outcome.
“The Bill would have made it illegal to abort a baby right up to birth (40+ weeks) for disabilities such as Down’s syndrome, club foot or cleft lip,” he said.
“That MLAs rejected this, is deeply worrying and sends an awful message about the value the NI Assembly places on the life of an unborn disabled child.
“The current law, foisted on us by Westminster, means a baby with no disability can be aborted for any reason up to 24 weeks but a baby with a disability can be aborted right up to 40 weeks. We sought to moderately amend the law.”
However Green Party MLA Clare Bailey said: “This bill sought to roll back on the hard-won rights of women in Northern Ireland.
“This bill was not compliant with human rights. It was right for the Assembly to ‘Kill the Bill’.”
Earlier, differing views on abortion were voiced during the Assembly debate.
DUP MLA Deborah Erskine told MLAs the current law sends the message that people with disabilities are less worthy of protection than those without disabilities.
But Sinn Féin vice president Michelle O’Neill said the Bill was part of a “shameful” strategy to block abortion services.
She said: “The women of this island have waited long enough for access to modern and compassionate abortion health services. That is an undeniable appalling fact.
“Yet here we are today where, instead of supporting the provision of modern, compassionate abortion services for women, the DUP and UUP continues to hold up and deny this essential health care service to women and girls who need it.”
She continued: “A new generation of women will not abide a repeat of the failures of the past particularly when it comes to their health care.
“It is now more than a year since the law was changed, and the Health Minister [Robin Swann] has still not moved to implement these services. He must answer why this is the case.
“And meanwhile, women wait for access to care that they so badly need, sometimes in the most traumatic of circumstances the DUP continue with a strategy designed to block abortion services.
“This is shameful. As political leaders, and as parties in a power-sharing executive, we have a responsibility to deliver public services for everyone.
“The women of the North see you and the women in your communities see you.”
The Sinn Féin deputy First Minister said her party has submitted a Private Members Motion on the commissioning of services and is seeking cross-party support for it.
She added: “We have had enough of women being exiled abroad or taking abortion pills, often alone and afraid, without medical supervision. This is the moment to draw the line.”
Ms Erskine spoke to MLAs in support of the Private Member’s Bill.
“This Bill is a targeted piece of draft legislation which focuses on stereotypes against disabilities.”
She said the legislation passed in Westminster “added to the stigma” faced by disabled people in society.
She said: “The current law sends the message that people with disabilities are less worthy of protection than those without disabilities.
“What a disappointing message to send out from this Assembly and a troubling legacy to leave. Consider the impact of this law.
“Disability is not a disease. It is our job to ensure that those faced with these challenges have every opportunity to overcome these.
“It would be totally condemned if a country’s abortion laws singled out babies on the grounds of gender or skin colour, but because it is a disability this is somehow viewed as acceptable. It isn’t.”
The law allows abortion in all circumstances up to 12 weeks.
Terminations are permitted up to 24 weeks when there is a risk to the woman’s physical or mental health.
There is no time limit in cases of fatal foetal abnormality or when there has been a diagnosis of a serious physical or mental impairment that would cause a serious disability.
Abortions after 24 weeks in those circumstances are rare.