NI Secretary given new powers to expand abortion

NI Secretary given new powers to expand abortion

The Northern Ireland Secretary, Brandon Lewis, has announced that the Conservative Government has introduced regulations to Parliament that will give the Northern Ireland Secretary new powers to enable him to force Stormont to to expand abortion access across Northern Ireland  through the commissioning of abortion services.

The regulations confer on the Secretary of State the power to direct the First Minister, deputy First Minister, a Northern Ireland Minister, a Northern Ireland department, the Regional Health and Social Care Board, and the Regional Agency for Public Health and Social Well-being.

The new regulations will provide Brandon Lewis with the new powers from March 31 2021, but they will need to be debated in both houses of Parliament – within 28 sitting days – to remain in force.

The UK Government and various pro-abortion advocacy groups have been pressuring the Northern Ireland Health Minister, Robin Swann, to commission abortion procedures across the region since the start of this year when one of the five NHS trusts was unable to perform abortions because a doctor was on maternity leave.

There is widespread opposition to further Westminster interference on this matter from both the public and other parties in Northern Ireland.

The Severe Fetal Impairment Abortion (Amendment) Bill has just passed its second stage at the Northern Ireland Assembly by 48 votes to 12.  The Bill, launched by Paul Givan MLA, will provide protections for babies in the womb with disabilities, who currently can be aborted up to term.

Over 27,500 people have signed a petition in support of the Bill and 1,608 people with Down’s syndrome and their families signed an open letter to party leaders in Northern Ireland urging them to support the Bill.

The initial justification for the imposition of abortion on Northern Ireland in 2019 arose from the absence of a functioning Executive. However, the Presbyterian Church, who remain opposed to this Westminster intervention, have said: “This damaging step was taken over the heads of our elected Assembly, with the excuse given that the devolved institutions were not functioning at that time. No such excuse for the undermining of devolution can be used at this time”.

While abortion was forced on Northern Ireland in March 2020, the Executive has yet to commission a national policy. 

Swann has continued to argue that, as a controversial issue, it is the task of the Executive to agree to set up the services and not the responsibility of any one department. He added that a ministerial decision to commission and fund abortion would not be defensible in court in the absence of Executive approval.

According to information gained from a Freedom of Information (FOI) request, health officials in Northern Ireland met in December 2019 to discuss how many abortions the region should expect if abortion services were commissioned after Westminster voted to impose abortion on the region in July 2019.

According to notes from the meeting: “Service needs to be scaleable [sic] (if service take-up reaches […] England and Wales levels that figure could be 6,500)”.