The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission has filed a judicial review in the region’s High Court over what it maintains is a lack of commission and funding for abortion. The human rights group cites Lewis, the Northern Ireland Executive, and the Northern Ireland Department of Health in its complaint.
Lewis seeks to have the British parliament allow him to direct the Northern Ireland health department to commission more widespread abortion provision.
The health department holds that it needs the agreement of the regional government in order to act.
Northern Ireland’s First Minister Arlene Foster, who is also leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, and Jeffrey Donaldson, the party’s leader in Westminster, met with Lewis about his plans March 18.
Donaldson recalled that “abortion is a devolved matter,” adding that “any move by an NIO minister to legislate over the head of the Northern Ireland Executive would raise serious questions about when and in what areas the government can make interventions in a devolved administration. The DUP would warn the Northern Ireland Office against legislating on a matter which is wholly devolved and we will vigorously oppose such steps.”
The Northern Ireland Assembly is a power-sharing legislature dominated by the DUP and Sinn Féin.
The Irish nationalist party has said it will call on the health department to make full provision for abortion.
The Severe Fetal Impairment Abortion (Amendment) Bill, introduced by a DUP Member of the Legislative Assembly, passed its second reading in the Assembly March 15, by a vote of 48 to 12. The bill would remove severe fetal impairment as a ground for abortion.
Sinn Féin MLAs abstained from the vote, while MLAs from the Social Democrat and Labour Party, the Ulster Unionist Party, and the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland were allowed a conscience vote.
Disability rights campaigners -- including the group Don't Screen Us Out and Heidi Crowter, an Irish woman with Down syndrome -- have welcomed the bill, calling the current law “downright discrimination” toward persons with disabilities.
Before March 31, 2020, abortion was legally permitted in Northern Ireland only if the mother's life was at risk or if there was risk of long term or permanent, serious damage to her mental or physical health.
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Northern Ireland rejected the Abortion Act 1967, which legalized abortion in England, Wales, and Scotland; and bills to legalize abortion in cases of fatal fetal abnormality, rape, or incest failed in the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2016.
In June 2020 the British Minister of State for Northern Ireland, Lewis’ deputy, said that while abortion regulation is a devolved issue, any local changes to Northern Ireland's abortion law would have to comply with human rights conventions.
The Northern Ireland Assembly had shortly before passed a non-binding motion rejecting the imposition of the abortion regulations by the Westminster parliament.
The amendment to the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 obliging the government to provide for legal abortion in Northern Ireland was introduced by Stella Creasy, a Labour MP who represents a London constituency.