The Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2020, which came into force March 31, allow elective abortions up to 12 weeks of pregnancy; abortions up to 24 weeks in cases of risk to the mother's physical or mental health; and abortion without time limit in cases of severe fetal impairment or fetal fetal abnormality.
Previously, abortion was legally permitted in the region 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.
The new framework was adopted to implement Westminster's Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019, which decriminalized abortion in Northern Ireland and placed a moratorium on abortion-related criminal prosecutions, and obliged the UK government to create legal access to abortion in the region by March 31.
The NI EF Act required that the recommendations of a UN report on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women be implemented.
The legislative scrutiny committee said its report on the regulations sets out the key points made in submissions from members of the House of Commons, House of Lords, and the Northern Ireland Assembly, as well as churches and other organizations.
“This Report also notes several instances where the Government’s administrative process for bringing these Regulations forward appears suboptimal,” it added, before drawing the regulations to the special attention of the House.
The committee noted that nearly all the submissions it received are critical of the regulations' provision for conscientious objection.
Conscientious objection is allowed for direct participation in abortion, but not for ancillary, administrative, or managerial tasks associated with the procedure, because, according to the regulations, that “would have consequences on a practical level and would therefore undermine the effective provision of abortion services in Northern Ireland.”
The exclusion of those carrying out ancillary, administrative, or managerial tasks from conscientious objection may be “too narrow and does not adequately protect” the rights to religious or philosophical beliefs under the European Convention on Human Rights.
According to the committee, the Attorney General for Northern Ireland submitted that ancillary staff are unlawfully discriminated against because the Northern Ireland Act 1998 prevents the Assembly and the Secretary of State “from enacting any provision which discriminates against any person or class of person on the ground of religious belief or political opinion.”
The committee wrote that “Given the sensitivity of the issues around conscientious objection, the House may wish to ask the Minister to consider further the scope of the policy and how it will be interpreted.”
The report also discussed the regulation of abortion in cases of severe fetal impairment or fetal fetal abnormality.
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Several submissions said the abortion of those with severe impairment is contrary to EU law because the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities “extends to those in the womb,” but that the region's attorney general acknowledged that the NI EF Act required the implementation of such a regulation because of CEDAW.
“There therefore appears to be a question over which UN Convention should take priority,” the committee wrote.
However, the Northern Ireland Office holds that the UNCRPD is not a binding law, and added: “we do not agree that the provision extends protection to those in the womb.”
The legislative scrutiny committee noted that the “the regime chosen largely mirrors the services available in the rest of the UK. In the light of the overwhelmingly negative response to the consultation exercise, it would have been better if the reasons for the specific policy choices made, were explained in more detail in the EM, and the House may wish to press the Minister for further explanation.”
Other submissions noted that “severe disability” could be interpreted differently and could include cleft lip or Down syndrome, and that the CEDAW recommendation requires the provision of abortion for “severe foetal impairment”, while not “perpetuating sterotypes towards persons with disabilities.”
“The House may wish to press the Minister about how these provisions will be interpreted,” the committee noted.