UK poised to pass law guiding N Ireland on abortion, gay marriage

The House of Parliament in London. Credit: Karim von Orelli via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).
The House of Parliament in London. Credit: Karim von Orelli via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

.- A bill in the parliament of the United Kingdom requiring the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to provide guidance to civil servants on how to exercise their functions regarding human rights is scheduled to receive Royal Assent Thursday.

The Nov. 1 Royal Assent will make the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Bill a law.

The bill is the latest effort to liberalize Northern Ireland's practice regarding abortion, in the wake of a June Supreme Court Ruling which said the current law violates the European Convention on Human Rights by banning abortion in cases of fatal fetal abnormality, rape, and incest.

British prime minister Theresa May has said abortion should be a devolved issue for Northern Ireland, but the Northern Ireland Assembly is currently suspended due to disagreements between the two major governing parties.

The Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Bill aims to provide for the exercise of governmental functions in light of the suspended legislature. Karen Bradley, the Northern Ireland Secretary, is to guide Northern Irish officials on how to exercise their functions in light of what the UK Supreme Court said in June regarding the region's abortion law.

In addition, Bradley is to give guidance regarding same-sex marriage.

The move is meant to bring Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the UK on the two social and moral topics.

Same-sex marriage has been allowed in England, Wales, and Scotland since 2014, but is not performed or recognized in Northern Ireland.

Abortion is legally permitted in Northern Ireland only if the mother's life is at risk or if there is risk of permanent, serious damage to her mental or physical health. Elective abortion is legal in the rest of the United Kingdom up to 24 weeks.

Northern Irish women have been able to procure free National Health Service abortions in England, Scotland, and Wales since November 2017.

Bills to legalize abortion in cases of fatal fetal abnormality, rape, or incest failed in the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2016.

The Democratic Unionist Party, the largest party in the Assembly and a member of the coalition government in Westminster, is opposed to changing the law. Sinn Féin, another prominent party in Northern Ireland, backs a liberalization of the abortion law.

The Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Bill was introduced in the House of Commons Oct. 18 and was fast-tracked through parliament.

In the House of Commons it received widespread support, and while it met with stronger opposition in the House of Lords, it nevertheless passed through the upper chamber.

Lord Rogan, a peer of the Ulster Unionist Party, expressed disillusionment with the vote, recalling the importance of devolution for the people of Northern Ireland.

Lord Mackay, a Conservative and a former Lord Chancellor, said that “abortion has been made a devolved subject and therefore the only statutory authority with authority to alter the statues and statutory instruments are the legislative Assembly of Northern Ireland.”

Baroness O'Loan noted that it was properly the role of the Northern Ireland Assembly to legislate on abortion law in the region, and said that “it must surely be illogical to ask the Secretary of State to issue guidance, which would be incompatible with that law.”

Lord Browne of Belmont, of the DUP, said he thought the move was “an attempt to change the law through guidance” and that “it is proper for those matters to be dealt with by the devolved institutions.”

But Lord Steel, a former leader of the Liberal Democrats, supported a move to have the UK parliament directly decriminalize abortion in the region.

And Lord Adonis, a Labour Party member, justified the UK parliament's move by saying that “if Northern Ireland wishes to exercise the prerogatives of devolution, it must operate devolved institutions. If they do not sit and legislate, then we have a duty to legislate in their place, because there is no one else who can do it.”

Labour MPs Stella Creasy and Conor McGinn had introduced an amendment in the House of Commons to repeal Northern Irish law on abortion and gay marriage, but it was defeated.

Separately, the Abortion Bill was introduced Oct. 23 by Diana Johnson, MP for Hull North and a member of the Labour Party. The bill, which would apply to England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, would decriminalize elective abortion up to 24 weeks. It is scheduled for a second reading Nov. 23.

Tags: Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Assembly, Devolution