11A.—(1) Without prejudice to section 58 and section 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 and section 25 of the Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1945 and subject to subsection (2) any person who ends the life of an unborn child at any stage of that child’s development shall be guilty of an offence and liable on conviction on indictment to a period of not more than ten years’ imprisonment and a fine.
(2) It shall be a defence for any person charged with an offence under this section to show—
(a) that the act or acts ending the life of an unborn child were lawfully performed at premises operated by a Health and Social Care Trust, or
(b) that the act or acts ending the life of the unborn child were lawfully performed without fee or reward in circumstances of urgency when access to premises operated by a Health and Social Care Trust was not possible.
(3) For the purposes of this section a person ends the life of an unborn child if that person does any act, or causes or permits any act, with the intention of bringing about the end of the life of an unborn child, and, by reason of any such act, the life of that unborn child is ended.
(4) For the purposes of this section ‘lawfully’ in subsection (2) means in accordance with any defence or exception under section 58 and section 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 and section 25 of the Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1945."— [Mr Givan.]
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Earlier today, my colleague Caitríona Ruane laid out clearly the Sinn Féin position on abortion. I would like to do that again for the benefit of Members who were clearly not listening. I wish to state clearly for the record where Sinn Fein stands on this issue. Ba mhaith liom seasamh Shinn Féin ar an cheist seo a lua go soiléir. I will do so because there appears to be some confusion and misinformation around this difficult issue. Let me be very clear. Ba mhaith liom bheith an-soiléir. Sinn Féin is not in favour of abortion on demand.
No, I will not.
We have consistently opposed the extension of the 1967 Act to the North of Ireland. However, in circumstances in which a pregnancy arises as a result of rape, incest or sexual abuse or in cases in which a woman's life or mental health are in danger, Sinn Féin's position is that the decision on whether or not to seek a termination must rest with the woman. I gcásanna mar sin, creideann Sinn Féin go gcaithfidh an cinneadh a bheith ag an bhean.
The amendment accepts that there are circumstances in which a termination of pregnancy can take place such as when the woman's life is in danger. The law allows for that. All parties in the Assembly, including Sinn Féin, accept that. Over the past number of days, we have heard Paul Givan and Alban Maginness state that clear position on the radio. So, the actual thrust of the amendment is about where a termination can take place. Baineann iar-mhír an leasaithe leis an láthair ar féidir foirceannadh a dhéanamh. Specifically, it seeks to limit that to places that are authorised by the health and social care trust. The underlying premise is that only the health service is capable of carrying out termination procedures within the law. However, there is no evidence to support that argument. Níl aon fhianaise ann le tacú leis an argóint sin.
Sinn Féin argues that we should not limit the way in which women are forced to deal with difficult, life-threatening situations. Rather, we should demand that they have access to the very best healthcare possible. Ba chóir dúinn bheith ag cinntiú go bhfuil an cúram sláinte is fearr ar fáil do mhná. Given the massive pressures on our health service, surely it makes more sense that, if a woman requires a termination within the requirements of the law, she should be free to decide for herself where and, more specifically, when that takes place. Whether a termination is carried out in the health service or in a private clinic is not the issue as long as the procedure is carried out safely and within the law.
Of course, the necessary regulations and safeguards must be in place. Ach is cinnte go gcaithfidh an rialachán riachtanach a bheith in áit. When Marie Stopes International gave evidence to the Committee, it stated clearly that it would comply with regulation if that were put in place. It also said that it had no intention of breaking the law. So, the focus should be on putting regulation in place. If the law is broken, it becomes a matter for the PSNI.
This is not the way to make law on a very important and emotive issue. We should not bolt this onto the end of the Criminal Justice Bill as though it were merely an insignificant add-on that requires no consultation or discussion. If ever there was an issue that demands the maximum consultation and discussion, surely it is this one. Má bhí ceist ann ariamh a raibh an méid comhairliúcháin is mó de dhíth uirthi, is cinnte gurb í seo an cheist. So, we should step back and reject the amendment and think instead about having a proper debate on the issue. We should listen to all the voices concerned so that, when we come to make law, it will be in a sympathetic, considered and informed manner.
Rather than criminalise some of the decisions that vulnerable women may make, we should focus on ensuring that, when a woman's life in is danger, she has access to the necessary healthcare. The foundational principle of equality for all requires protecting women's lives in our society in all medical circumstances. We should never place barriers in the way of women that make their decisions more difficult than they are already are. Tá mé in aghaidh an leasaithe. I oppose the amendment.
Thank you for that clarification. I have no doubt that I speak today as a Member of the Assembly for Lagan Valley with, I hope, some knowledge of some of the issues involved. I intend to deal with facts, because a lot of people have engaged in obfuscation and put up smokescreens because they do not like to deal with the facts.
Abortion is dealt with by criminal law. That is the first fact. Marie Stopes has identified a gap in that law, and this amendment would close that gap. That is as simple as it can get, and people have chosen to walk away from it. The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety regulates private hospitals and dentists, but it has no jurisdiction whatsoever over Marie Stopes or any other organisation that wishes to establish a clinic to carry out abortions or terminations of pregnancy in the private sector. Should Marie Stopes voluntarily agree to be regulated, that would be done by the RQIA and would only cover things such as standards of cleanliness, patient numbers and so forth. It would not deal with the law, because the individuals are not law officers. We are dealing with criminal law, and they have no authority to do that. I hope that that provides clarity for people in the Chamber, although I suspect that a lot of them will not want to listen. It will certainly provide clarity for people outside the Chamber.
The guidance that people have requested is now with all my Executive colleagues and their teams. Around 200 people received copies of that guidance on Friday. It does not cover this clinic or, indeed, any other private clinic, because we are talking not about a knee operation or a hip operation but the termination of a pregnancy. That is not covered in the private sector by health regulation; it is covered by legislation and, in this instance, criminal law. So, we can have all the smokescreens that the Alliance Party, Sinn Féin and the Green Party wish to put up on the issue.
We have just heard a Member say no woman should be denied health services in an emergency. Was there such a case before Marie Stopes came to Northern Ireland? I have not heard it said. Was there a gap in the market where the health service was not meeting the emergency needs of expectant women before Marie Stopes came to Northern Ireland? What emergencies has Marie Stopes dealt with since it came to Northern Ireland? Let us just nail that. That has no basis in fact or in truth, and the Members need to remember that.
Many people are very proud of the National Health Service. Indeed, when the Olympic Games were held in our capital, one of the things that were shown off around the world was the service that it provides. I am very glad that, in Northern Ireland, we are part of that National Health Service and have its standards applied here. It does a terrific job and is very well regarded generally in our community, and most people have a very good experience of it. So, the people across from us who advocate the private sector model for abortion need to be careful about what exactly they are advocating.
In England and Wales, there has been an 1,100% increase in the private sector carrying out abortions. In 2010, 111,775 abortions were carried out by private sector organisations such as Marie Stopes in England and Wales. That is a fact. Last year, Marie Stopes had a turnover of around £90 million, with a profit of around £10 million. Marie Stopes, as an organisation, works to transform policy environments, increasing access to safe abortion and family planning services. Sinn Féin is saying that it does not support the 1967 Abortion Act, but it is standing shoulder to shoulder with an organisation that wants to bring the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland. It is 100% with Marie Stopes and its desire to bring abortion on demand to Northern Ireland. That is where Sinn Féin stands today, whether it likes it or not. It is with Marie Stopes, the private clinics and the private sector. Of course, Sinn Féin has form on the private sector. After all, Ms Ruane, who spoke earlier, managed to privatise selective education. She thought that she would do away with it, but all that she did was to privatise it. Of course, on private healthcare, nowhere in Ireland was good enough for Mr Adams. He had to jet off to America to get that private care. I was reminded a little of the old —
On the private abortion clinic that Sinn Féin is supporting and private healthcare, I am reminded of 'Animal Farm', where all animals were equal but some were more equal than others. As Mr Adams jetted off, it reminded me of Napoleon the pig, who was slightly more equal than the rest, in that he was obtaining private healthcare while everyone else was left behind. In this instance, Sinn Féin is supporting private healthcare in Northern Ireland in the abortion sector, and it does it no credit whatsoever.
As I said, Marie Stopes is an organisation that wishes to see abortions taking place on demand. The outworkings of that in Great Britain have been that almost 7 million abortions have been carried out since 1967. That is equivalent to more than the population of Ireland. In the United States of America, 55 million abortions have been carried out, which is almost equivalent to the population of the United Kingdom. In China, 400 million abortions have been carried out under its one-child policy. That is more than the population of the United States of America and Canada put together. People say that, if we do not go down this route, we are the backwoods people. Let me say this very clearly: abortion is more closely associated with countries where human rights are worst. In China, many of the children are selected for abortion because they are female. Where are women's rights in that, when female children do not get the chance to live, to play, to be educated, to work and to have their own family? Are you telling me that that is advancement and that we in Northern Ireland are in the backwoods? If this is the backwoods, I am glad that we are in it, because I do not want to go down a route that the places that I have just mentioned have gone already. It is clearly a wrong and a dangerous place to be.
Sinn Féin does not have a great record on pro-life, whether that is before conception or after conception, but I will not draw your wrath on that one, Mr Speaker.
I will turn to the Alliance Party and the stance that Minister Ford has taken on the issue. Mr Ford may not have told his members, but he wrote a letter some time ago, in which he said that, where there is evidence of a crime having been committed, the police and the prosecuting authorities will investigate and prosecute as appropriate. He went on to say that, if any such evidence is presented, the offences and penalties contained in the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 and the Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1945, the powers available to the police under the Police and Criminal Evidence (Northern Ireland) Order 1984, and access to other expert medical services available to them, provide the police and prosecuting authorities with the appropriate powers to deal with breaches of the law.
It is very clear where Minister Ford believes that the power exists. He did not say that the power existed with RQIA; he did not say that the power existed with the Department of Health or with any of the health and social care trusts. He said that the power lies with the prosecuting authorities — the police — to deal with the breaches of the law. The problem is that nobody knows whether the law is being breached, because Marie Stopes is operating under a cloud of darkness. Nobody knows, and we could have stopped it here today, but some people decided that they would table a petition of concern. They have allowed that private business to carry on its practices under that cloak of darkness where nobody can hold it to account.
I understand that Minister Ford has indicated today that he believes that something should be done about it, and that he is going to look at how he can act. If we do not make any progress on the amendment today, at least that would be progress. We will see what Minister Ford comes forward with in dealing rightfully with the issue.
I have to mention Minister Ford's intervention over the weekend. Some of the points that he threw up were wholly bogus. I think that he knew beforehand that they were wholly bogus. I regret that I am in this position, because I have known David Ford and worked with him since 1996. We have had many discussions and debates, and I have always had respect for him. However, his intervention over the weekend was clandestine and done in collaboration with Sinn Féin. He brought forward issues that Sinn Féin very quickly clung on to like a limpet. He indicated that there could be problems about contraception, IUDs and so forth, and morning-after pills. I will explain very simply to Members where he is wrong. If I go to bed tonight and I get up tomorrow morning and accuse someone of having shaved off my beard, I would be in an odd position, because I could not grow a beard overnight, and there would be no evidence that I had grown a beard. Therefore, any accusation that I made that my beard had been shaved off would not have any standing. How could Minister Ford suggest that someone could be prosecuted for giving out the morning-after pill or, indeed, IUDs — to say that there could be some prosecution involved in that, or the law was not clear on it — when there was no evidence of a pregnancy in the first instance? You could not prosecute someone for terminating that pregnancy. Therefore, if I were to claim that I had had my beard shaved off, I would be nothing better than a barefaced liar in that instance, and that is not something that I would want to be.
It is very clear that Mr Ford's intervention was clumsy and cynical and was not in our best interests, in that it caused confusion and did not assist the debate. I would have been quite happy to clarify that issue with him before he went to the press, the media and others. The Alliance Party —
I thank the Member for giving way. Given what he said, at what point can we get evidence? If, for example, a medicalised abortion is performed, what is the evidence of life in such an instance? If someone purchases the abortion pill online and takes it, what is the evidence? When we refer to the life of an unborn child, at what stage does life begin? We need to know that before we can seek the evidence that life has been taken.
You can understand why I tried to make things so simple just a moment or two ago. The Pill is a contraceptive; the morning-after pill is a contraceptive; and IUDs are contraceptives. The pills being given out by Marie Stopes are abortifacients. There is a considerable difference, and I trust that I do not have to explain to other Members, even if Mr Agnew has a little difficulty taking that in and fails to understand.
I find it somewhat sad where the Alliance Party is today. I reflect on a debate on abortion that I took part in back in 2000. An Alliance MLA, Seamus Close, one of the Members from my constituency, spoke very well. He said:
"Abortion strikes at the heart of society. It deals with the beginning of human life, but tragically it is also about the snuffing out of human life, even before birth. Abortion kills human beings. Abortion kills the unborn child ... No human problem in society, whether in Northern Ireland or anywhere else, can be solved by killing another human being. Abortion is violent. Abortion is negative. It rests on the dangerous principle that the small and the weak are inferior and that some human beings are disposable." — [Official Report, Bound Volume 5, p215, col 2, and p216, col 1].
I regret that that is not the position of the Alliance Party today and that it has moved, tragically, to somewhere completely different. We have not changed our position on the issue. In every situation, we have to deal with care, compassion, grace and honesty with people who have pregnancies that they did not expect or find problems with, and they are in a tumultuous situation.
Rape and incest were mentioned. We cannot but deal with those people sympathetically, but the position is very clear: the people best placed to make that decision are clinicians in conjunction with an expectant mother. It is not for us to legislate on that. Clinicians can and do make those decisions in the interests of all parties.
Sinn Féin, the SDLP and the Alliance Party should be deeply ashamed of supporting an organisation that has a bonus system to drum up more business, and more business is more abortions. Sinn Féin stood for election in Mid Ulster just a few weeks ago. At that election, the majority of people voted for pro-life in that they voted for Nigel Lutton and Patsy McGlone. Sinn Féin lost around 5,000 votes. Sinn Féin members may think that they can ride this through and that people will forget, but people will have long memories on this issue.
Sinn Féin may want to blame the result on the weather. Mr McGlone's vote was up. They may want to blame it on a poor candidate. That is for them to say, but the Sinn Féín vote was down by 5,000, and it did not tell the people of Mid Ulster what it was doing. I suspect that if the party had the honesty and did not cynically exploit its own electorate, its vote would have been down considerably more. It did not have the guts to do that, but it did it yesterday to destroy the opportunity to ensure that abortions, terminations of pregnancies, can be carried out in a way that looks after the mother, acts in the best interests of the unborn child and ensures that we in Northern Ireland do not go down the route of GB, the USA and China, whose records on this issue are very poor.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I apologise to you, Mr Speaker, and to the rest of the House for not being here during the earlier part of the debate. I was in Derry representing the Health Committee at a conference.
When I was thinking about what I was going to say in the debate, I decided that I was going to start off by saying that I hoped that it would be conducted in a respectful and reasonable manner and that people would respect one another. However, having listened to it on the radio, coming back in the car, I have lost that. I picked up that today's debate was a bit rough, in a sense. We need to be respectful and respect one another in the course of any debates in the House.
This is a very emotive issue, and nobody would deny that. It is an emotive issue for a lot of people, and we need to appreciate that. The reality is that it is also an emotive issue for some women who find themselves in a position in which they need to have a medical termination. We need to appreciate that as well.
Give me a couple of minutes to get to the main thread of what I am going to say. I want to say this, Jim, and then I will give way.
I know that my colleague who spoke before me, and Caitríona, whose contribution I listened to on the radio, have given Sinn Féin's position. I am going to restate our position because having come back and listened to some of the media stuff, I know that there are journalists and others here tweeting parts of this debate, and the position of Sinn Féin is sometimes being clouded. So, for the record, I want to once again state our position: we are not in favour of abortion. Members may shake their heads, but I have spoken in a number of debates on this over the past number of years. We are not in favour of it and, in fact, have voted against the extension of the Act here. However, we believe that where a woman's life is at risk or where there are mental health issues — and I will get to that, Paul — there is an issue for medical terminations, and that rests with the women. So, do not misrepresent what Sinn Féin is saying. I will give way now, Jim.
I think you are referring to the honourable Member for South Down. The Member for West Belfast has vast experience of health. She has been on the Health Committee as either Chair or vice-Chair for many, many years. She knows the ins and outs of the system in Northern Ireland like the back of her hand. Can she point me to one example, in Northern Ireland, where a woman who has had a difficult pregnancy, or with whom there has been an issue, has been denied proper treatment in the health service? Can she give me one example of where that woman would have been driven to use such a service, had there been a private clinic? I have sat on the Health Committee with her for many years, and I have never heard of it. I have even dealt with many pro-abortion campaigners, and they have never been able to bring an example of it forward to be investigated. So, where is the need for a private clinic, if we already have an excellent service in the National Health Service?
Thank you for giving way. Fairly recently, I was approached and told that a woman was told by the doctors around her that they suspected that her foetus may have abnormalities, and a doctor told her to go away to get an abortion at that time, because she would not get one in Northern Ireland.
OK. I noticed Paul — I am sorry, the honourable Member for Lagan Valley — nodding his head and agreeing that it is similar, and agreeing with what I said. I heard your interview last week, and I thought it was very clear cut. I appreciate that, through you, Mr Speaker. I am sorry, I am not aware of the rules in here sometimes.
I think there is an issue of why we are here. I appreciate that the Minister of Health spoke earlier as a Member. I do not want to get into a debate between me and other Members, but, in the course of listening to some of the debate, I have been struck by the fact that the Member for Lagan Valley has said that, due to the issue that is coming up, we are in difficulty in that there is now a grey area. I am paraphrasing. He said that there is a grey area and a gap in the law. Abortion is dealt with under criminal justice; so, because of the Marie Stopes stuff, there is now a gap in the law. I would appreciate it if we could find out. If that is the case, are we aware of whether the Minister of Health had any discussions between then and now with the Minister of Justice, either informally or formally? We are in a collective Executive to actually bridge that gap in the law before we come to the Floor of the Assembly and get involved in a debate and fight. That is what strikes me: if there is a gap in one Department, can we not or are we not mature enough to have a discussion, either informally or formally, and work out how we can deal with that gap in the law? It seems to me that that did not happen. Perhaps, it should have.
The first issue with regard to medical terminations is access within the legal framework. The second is the privatisation of health care. If people want to be upfront and honest about the debate, we need to have it. The fact is that we have had a failure with regard to the Minister's bringing forward appropriate guidelines. Medical professionals and clinicians have been calling out for them. People who work in the field have been calling out for them. There has been a failure in bringing forward those guidelines. I appreciate that the Minister has finally brought forward draft guidance to the Executive for consideration next week. Although I welcome the publication of that guidance, I am truly disappointed — and a lot of people in the Assembly know me — that the first that I heard of it, as Chair of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety, was in the media.
With respect, Mr Speaker, we have worked hand in glove with the Minister. If he is honest, he would say that I have worked very closely with him in the Committee on issues that relate to health and social services to try to get a reasoned position because we do not always want to battle. I am not interested in battling with the Minister for the sake of it or because he belongs to a different party. Sometimes, he gets it right. I actually commend him for getting it right. However, in this case, he failed to let me or other Committee members know that there was draft guidance. That is an indictment of what happened.
In fairness, Committee members will consider the draft guidance at the Executive, in our own groupings and at the Committee when it is out for consultation. We will look at it in a mature way. We also need to look for the clarity that medical practitioners seek on the issue. The issue is not, from a medical practitioner's point of view, where the medical termination might take place; it is whether he or she is protected under the current framework. We do practitioners a disservice and injustice if we do not get the guidance right.
We need to look at the whole issue of leaving the guidance until the last minute. We need a proper —
Apologies. I meant Strangford.
I take on board what the Health Minister said as a private Member about the gap. However, it does not mean that I agree with him. Putting it in the Criminal Justice Bill at this late stage actually does not allow that discussion to take place.
The second issue is private healthcare. I listened to some of that discussion. Let me speak for Sinn Féin. I am opposed to the privatisation of health services.
You need to be careful.
On 11 March 2013, the Minister of Health brought legislation on mental health to the House. Through you, Mr Speaker; are you opposed to that? Over the past three years, we have spent over £130 million on private healthcare. There are questions on why we got to that point. If we are genuinely —
If we are genuinely concerned about privatisation and private healthcare, let us have a proper debate. Let us challenge the issue of private money in the health service.
I support the amendment, and I will give good reasons for doing so. I believe that Sinn Féin has got this wrong and that it will find it hard to reconcile its supporters in my constituency to enabling, allowing and supporting a private clinic that offers abortions in Northern Ireland.
I will go into detail about why I believe Marie Stopes should not give, and has no credibility in giving, abortions. I preface my remarks by saying that the SDLP acknowledges the sensitivity of this issue. We are aware that many women have had pregnancies terminated for many reasons, many of whom are still grieving and still questioning the decision that they took at that time.
I am the chair of the all-party group on pro-life. We have had very young women come to us as witnesses to give testimonies about the effect and mental trauma of having an abortion. I say that in the context that it is not my job to judge or criticise women, and it is certainly not my job as a legislator to criminalise women. Marie Stopes came in here as a stunt. It tried to pull the wool over the eyes of the people of Northern Ireland, and it is continuing to try to do so.
There are many women who find themselves in difficult positions, but we have a good Health and Social Care system here, and that is why I support this amendment. The most appropriate way to deal with women who are vulnerable and socially disadvantaged is through our Health and Social Care system.
Since its foundation, the SDLP's position has been based on a human rights perspective and, most fundamentally, on the protection of the unborn child. The right to human life clearly takes precedence over any other right. The right of the unborn child has to take precedence over anything else. I oppose Marie Stopes and abortion because, from the point of conception, that child is a human being.
I thank the Member for giving way. It has been quoted here on numerous occasions today that private health clinics such as Marie Stopes offer a termination up to nine weeks. Is the Member able to enlighten the House as to whether there is anything stopping a private health clinic carrying out abortions after nine weeks at, say, 18 weeks or 24 weeks?
That is certainly an interesting question. When questioned before the Assembly's Justice Committee in January, the director of Marie Stopes in Belfast, Dawn Purvis, admitted that there is nothing to stop them — this is on the record — aborting unborn babies up to 18 weeks, 24 weeks or later. That is what they have said. So do not be under any illusion that Marie Stopes is only here to give some women a pill, because that is not what it is here for.
I thank the Member for giving way. I want to put a similar question to him that I put to Mr Poots. The Member said that he supports the protection of life from the moment of conception. [Interruption.]
I do not even want to go down that route. Edwin Poots responded to that, and I think that the Member knows rightly that, with the morning-after pill, the child has not been conceived at that stage. Anybody would know that. I am surprised at you, Steven.
My culture, background and faith mean that I — not just politically, but personally — want to be a champion for the unborn child. I want to protect the unborn child. I want to ensure that I prevent abortions. Edwin Poots outlined to the House the number of abortions in England, Scotland and Wales. For every four children born in England at the minute, one is aborted. I have a daughter who used to live in London while working for the probation service. They were aborting children in London not because of any mental health reasons or because there was any risk to the woman's health. They were aborting children in England — and this is what Marie Stopes wants to do —
Chris, you can talk all you want from a sitting position. They were aborting children in London and across England, Scotland and Wales because they did not like the gender of the child. That is a fact. That is what Marie Stopes will bring to Northern Ireland.
Throughout the Troubles, the SDLP's principles and policies were always about the protection of life. We remain very firm on that, particularly for the unborn child. Every life should be protected and respected. I say again that Sinn Féin has got this wrong. Three years ago, I was presented with 15,000 cards just before justice was devolved to Northern Ireland. There was concern that there were those at Westminster who were endeavouring to bring the 1967 Act here. I listen to people saying to me, "You have no right to speak for a woman; you are a man." The vast majority of those 15,000 people in my constituency were women. I am representing them here today, and I am reflecting their opinions on the subject.
In England, one in four children is aborted. There are many hospitals in England, Scotland and Wales in which premature children under the 26 weeks, and many more in Northern Ireland, are living and are being brought back to life in intensive care wards.
I want to give circumstances to Marie Stopes, and I did so through some interventions earlier. Parties in here want to support that private English organisation. It is one of the largest private abortion providers in the world. In 2011, it aborted 4·5 million children. Some parties in the Chamber think that it is OK for that organisation to come here.
Does the Member agree that, during the hearing, which was chaired by Ms Ramsey, it was revealed that staff in Marie Stopes clinics have quotas of abortions that they must perform? One member of staff in a clinic in Essex left because she was put under the most enormous pressure because she was not achieving her quotas. Of course, quota meant profit. Therefore, not only do those people abort millions of babies; the business model of Marie Stopes is to ensure that the maximum number of babies are killed in its clinics. Do we want that happening on the streets of Belfast? I believe that the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland do not want it happening.
I stand corrected: it was chaired by Mr Givan, not Ms Ramsey.
I am glad that Jim Wells raised that point. At the Justice Committee meeting, when Marie Stopes made its submission, it admitted that the location of the abortion clinic was in the heart of Belfast. That is no coincidence. It is situated right across from the Europa bus and train station. It was purposely chosen to facilitate young women from across the border in the South to have abortions in Northern Ireland.
I want to relate to something that Jim Wells said. A former administrator at the Raleigh abortion clinic in Brixton stated that the more people they got booked in for terminations, the better bonus they got. Then, there were the consultations. Girls would come in expecting to talk to a doctor. They got a nurse. It used nurses to save time; nurses got them over within a few minutes. However, a high cost was involved — remember that there is a high cost to this all the time.
Anna, I am glad that you said that, because I am going to quote to you again. During the 2007 Women Deliver conference in London, Paul Cornellisson, Marie Stopes's programme director for South Africa stated during a workshop, with the camera rolling:
"we do illegal abortions all over the world".
That is what they are saying. So, Anna, the credibility of Marie Stopes is not good. It is not honourable, and it will do anything if it means financial gain. [Interruption.]
I thank the Member for giving way. I have seen the footage of that conference. If you put that comment in the context of what is said in total, it is clear that he misspoke and meant to say "legal abortions". He makes it very clear immediately afterwards — [Interruption.] I challenge anyone to go and watch it themselves. He made it clear immediately afterwards that women seeking abortions outside the law in that country have to cross into a bordering country. He made it clear that they are making legal abortions in that country and providing abortions elsewhere within the jurisdiction that the services are offered in.
I do not know whether Mr Agnew has seen the same video as I have. I raised that issue with the Marie Stopes directors when they came before the Justice Committee, and they were clearly extremely embarrassed by the fact that I knew who Paul Cornellisson was. They did not make that defence. What I know is that, when that video became public, Mr Cornellisson's job with Marie Stopes was very quickly terminated. There was no defence that he had been misquoted or used the wrong word. The problem was that the cat was out of the bag, and what was going on in Marie Stopes throughout the world was now on video for public view. That was the problem.
I thank the Member for that intervention. It is sensitive and emotive subject matter, but the people representing their constituents in here know in their heart and soul that there is no appetite for abortion in Northern Ireland. Parties may cloud things and say that they do not want to criminalise women or do this or that, but tabling a petition of concern against the amendment gives encouragement and support, and enabling Marie Stopes to operate unregulated in Northern Ireland.
One of the areas of concern for me is the credibility of Marie Stopes. People do not understand that, because they have not researched it. In 2001, a Marie Stopes doctor, Dr Phil Dartey, was struck off for his treatment of patients, including an Irish woman. I said this earlier, but I will repeat it. That woman was left fighting for her life after visiting a Marie Stopes abortion clinic in London. The doctor perforated her uterus and left part of her unborn baby in the womb. Those are facts. Anyone can do the research and get it. In fact, it was in the 'Belfast Telegraph'. When the woman returned to Ireland, she was rushed to hospital and spent several months recuperating. This is the organisation that parties in this Chamber think is grand to provide medical abortions for women in the private sector.
I am sure that Members know the figures. Roughly 1,500 women go from here to England every year to seek private abortions. Some of them may seek an abortion in Marie Stopes. If the Member has such suspicions and doubts about the clinic, why are we turning a blind eye and letting women go to England all the time?
I have made it clear that I think that we can do things better in Northern Ireland for women who find themselves in those positions. I have to say that I was lucky in life in having a late child, Áine, who is now 12. There is a big distance between her and our next girl, but she brought to mind the importance of a child in the family — the love and the bond that it can bring to a family. How many married couples in Northern Ireland are waiting to adopt children? So, there are circumstances involving an unwanted pregnancy in which support, care and guidance could be given, Anna, to a vulnerable woman to enable some other family to have that same love and bond.
In the debate, I have tried to reflect and to represent the views of the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland. We had a quarter of a million signatures on petition sheets that were presented here in the House today. That was their petition of concern — that is what it was — to the Members of the House. They wanted to tell them that they did not want abortion in their name. We have consistently said that, and I say it to Sinn Féin again: you have got it mightily wrong. I support the amendment.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Beidh mé ag labhairt i gcoinne an leasaithe. I will speak against the amendment. In reply to a number of things that have been said, the one thing that I can say with absolute certainty is that the people who vote for Sinn Féin as a party understand very clearly our party policy — [Interruption.]
— and I trust that people know exactly what I stand for and represent. They need no third person or party to interpret their views on their behalf. So I state once again for the record that Sinn Féin has a clear policy on the termination of a pregnancy. That policy states that, when a life of a woman is in danger, she has a right to a termination. Caitríona Ruane, Rosie McCorley and Sue Ramsey have already said that. Some people wish to translate that as Sinn Féin having a pro-abortion position. For the record —
I have no particular record, but I ask you the same question: are you stating now that a woman has a right to a termination when her life is in danger? That is the question that you have to ask yourselves.
For the record, Sinn Féin is opposed to the extension of the 1967 Act to the North, and we have articulated that in Assembly debates over the years. It is worth noting that people who have publicly stated that they are opposed to the termination of a pregnancy in all circumstances, by supporting this amendment and by their remarks today, are now stating and indeed accepting that terminations can happen, but only in health service facilities. Alban Maginness and Paul Givan, speaking for the SDLP and DUP on Radio Ulster yesterday, confirmed their support for terminations when a woman's life is in danger. That is the question —
No, I am not giving way in this instance. You led off the debate and had plenty of time.
Members must ask themselves that question. Are they in favour of a woman exercising her right, if her life is in danger, to terminate a pregnancy?
— in line with our policy and against the 250,000 signatories whose petition came to this door. They say that there are no circumstances in which a termination should take place. You need to be very clear about that. This approach and the policy now adopted by everyone is the way to deal with the issue. Do not allow the situation to prevail in which a woman should be permitted to die rather than have a termination.
This debate is too often reduced to an either/or scenario. Indeed, I have heard senior clergy refer to it as a debate between two world views. This issue is much more complex than that and requires a better analysis than the two-world theory. Examining the variety of views in the Assembly alone should help us to understand that. The vote this afternoon will be testament to that contention. Who votes, how they vote and, indeed, those who do not vote will illuminate my argument. This is a topic that unfortunately and tragically is accompanied by attempts to deliberately mislead people through misinformation, half-truths — [Interruption.] — and ill-informed comments.
I ask Members today, in relation to that, how many have read the transcript of when the Marie Stopes clinic came to the Justice Committee? I ask them to do that and to listen to some of the comments. People today have made a statement of a question that they asked at the Committee. That is not the way to do business. In essence, it leads to a situation in which people are used as scapegoats, particularly when the debate is not going in the direction in which a person wants it to go. An example of that is trying to introduce the issue that terminations should not happen in private clinics or private health facilities. Comments were made that the Marie Stopes organisation is motivated solely by profit, yet it is a registered charity — [Interruption.] — and a not-for-profit organisation.
Sinn Féin is totally opposed to the tabling of the amendment at this stage of the legislative process. A sensitive and important issue such as this — indeed, making legislation — deserves the process, as laid out, that operates and governs the Assembly. It has served us well to date. Tom Elliott made the comment — I agree with him — that there needs to be much more debate around this issue. However, let me say this: there is a tried and tested method of achieving that. He is a member of the Justice Committee and has seen that process in place and in practice —
— with all other aspects of the Bill. A cursory glance at the work of the Committee, over many sessions and with many witnesses providing evidence, would show that that stands testament to that contention. To try to circumvent the need for public consultation —
— the scrutiny carried out by the Committee and the Assembly and all other avenues of scrutiny that assist us in our legislative process is, in this instance, wholly inappropriate and plain wrong.
I thank the Member for giving way. He did raise something that I said, which I stand over. However, does the Member feel it appropriate that a clinic or other clinics that could start up can proceed with abortions that are unregulated? That is the test. That is the issue for me: these are unregulated. That leaves the most vulnerable women in our society even more vulnerable.
I think that my colleague Sue Ramsey dealt with that. Is there a need for regulation? There is. The Minister of Health appeared here today as a private Member. I have sometimes been critical of him for sitting in on debates when he should be elsewhere, but it was appropriate that he was here today. Perhaps he should listen to that question. If there is a need for regulation, he should go and do it and not leave it as an in-between thing. [Interruption.]
If they do not do so in this instance, they need to ask themselves why. Indeed, the Minister told us at the weekend that he was putting guidelines out into the public domain. What was in the next sentence he said? Twelve-week public consultation. That is the proper way to do business. Why was that not done in this instance?
For us, the amendment poses serious questions about equality, rights and process. Those who put the amendment forward have displayed no regard to those. Therefore, in our view, the petition of concern, signed on a cross-party basis, was the appropriate way to deal with the amendment. [Interruption.]
To bring religion into it was unbelievable, and they should be ashamed of themselves. The Alliance Party agrees that its members should have a conscience and a free vote on the issue of abortion, and that is exactly as it should be. In case there is any misunderstanding of where I stand on abortion — [Interruption.]
Order. I ask the Member to take his seat. The Member has made it absolutely clear that he will not take interventions, and Members should not try to get an intervention. There also seem to be some Members who believe that the only contribution that should be made in the House is their contribution. That is wrong as well. Allow the Member to continue.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I voice my total and absolute opposition to abortion in this country, and I will oppose any attempt to introduce legislation on the taking of life of the unborn infant into Northern Ireland, either through the back door or the front door.
I welcome the belated document on the subject from our Health Minister, though it has not yet been released to the public. I concur with the Chairperson of the Health Committee that it was absolutely disgraceful that we, as members of the Health Committee, should see that report flashed across our screens on Sunday morning by Mark Carruthers. The Health Minister did not have the courtesy to afford the members of the Health Committee at least a sight of that document. Shame on the Minister for letting his Committee down.
Reports coming into the public domain seem to emphasise that only in very serious cases and with the expertise of at least two highly qualified medical professionals can a termination take place. Those vital issues must be adhered to by all private providers, and it must be done within the law and within a robust regulatory framework.
I have sympathy with part of the amendment, but I cannot vote for it, as this is a Criminal Justice Bill, not an abortion Bill, and because, as the Justice Minister said, on issues as important as we are discussing, it simply cannot be tagged on to any legislation at the last minute and without full examination and consultation.
We should all be grateful to the Justice Minister, Mr Ford, for writing and fully explaining to everyone why the amendment is misplaced. In the second paragraph of his letter, Mr Ford agreed that the question of regulation of abortions not on health and social care premises needs attention. It is important to say that the Minister has said that that needs attention, and I hope that all Members agree with that.
Order. I do not know whether the Member was in the House before Mr McCarthy started his contribution, but he made it absolutely clear that he was taking no interventions. Members should not persist.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. The Minister agrees that it is the way the amendment is framed, the way it has come to the Assembly and the difficulties it could cause in the future. The Justice Minister acknowledges that all abortion issues could be resolved with proper consideration and advice, but, in an area of law in which health professionals and criminal justice agencies all need clarity, a clause such as is proposed leaves so many points of uncertainty and is not the correct way for legislation in the Assembly.
Mr Ford rightly states that today's debate is not about the right to life or the right to choose, nor is it about the fundamentals of the law on abortion. It is about an amendment that will cause significant confusion on a substantive issue on which there has been no opportunity for public debate. It is on those grounds that I cannot support the amendment.
I am unashamedly pro-life, within and outside the womb. Therefore, I give my total support to the amendment.
It is, of course, shameful that the one thing that is being aborted today is democracy in this House by virtue of the perverse use of a perverse instrument — the petition of concern — through which a minority view will prevail as if it were a majority view in the House. That has been done, of course, at the behest of those whom that very act flushes out as abortionists. That, I have to say, in respect of Sinn Féin, comes as no surprise to me. I sat for five years in the European Parliament, where issues such as this were debated — the misuse of foreign development aid to promote abortion and all those things — and, every time, the Sinn Féin MEPs voted on the side of abortion. They did so no more evidently than on 14 January 2009, when a specific report called the Catania report, drawn up by Giusto Catania — an Italian communist MEP who, of course, came from the group in the European Parliament in which the Sinn Féin MEPs sat — demanded that abortion on demand should be a right across all 27 member states. Who voted for it? Sinn Féin. Then they come here today and, with weasel words, they pretend for the sake of, they hope, a gullible home audience that they are not really in favour of abortion at all. When they are away from home, where they think that they may be a little less in the public gaze, they are very much in the abortion camp as they were and are in the European Parliament. They showed their colours on that occasion, as they did on many occasions. They pretend today that they are not at all for abortion and they just want an abortion clinic, even though such abortion as is legal can be adequately provided in the health service. Indeed, such is their enthusiasm for abortion that these disciples of Marxism are now the protectors and promoters of private profit-making enterprise. The Marie Stopes clinic may be a charity, but it is in the business of making profit, which it ploughs back into its abortion agenda. It is a profit-making organisation. It is a private organisation that provides private clinics. Where now are those who tell us that they are socialist in outlook and Marxist in outlook? They are the champions of private enterprise when it comes to killing the unborn. That says it all.
One of the primary reasons why the legislation requires to be implemented is that the Marie Stopes clinic deliberately and consciously refuses all requests for regulation and, indeed, all requests for reasonable information. I wrote to the clinic after it came here with a series of simple questions. I wanted to know whether it would regularly publish the number of abortions performed in Belfast; the ages of those on whom they were performed; the number of abortion referrals made to Great Britain; the reason why each abortion was performed; and the income received from abortions. I asked such questions and many, many more. What was the response? It was a solicitor's letter telling me that they were going to the Justice Committee and any answers that they would give, they would give to that Committee. Of course, when they got to the Justice Committee, they did not give the answers there either. So we have a functioning clinic, and no one to this day knows how many abortions it has carried out; how many referrals it has made; the reason for any of those abortions; or the funds that have been raised. All of that is hidden — kept in the dark. It is because that throws up the obvious deficiency in regulation and control that the amendment is inescapably necessary in order to bring regulation and control. The amendment is necessary to ensure that such terminations of pregnancy as there are will be where they ought to be: in the regulated health service and not the plaything of outside profiteers who will tell no one anything about what they do. Yet that is the situation that Sinn Féin wants to sustain.
Sinn Féin stands utterly exposed on this issue for what it is and what it really thinks. That is no bad thing. Sinn Féin has played fast and loose with this issue for years, pretending in the Republic of Ireland and up here to be anti-abortion, when the truth is that they are abortionists — abortionists who are now ready to feather the nest of private interest.
I was very surprised by some of the content of the Minister's circular, the manifesto that he sent to all of us a few days ago. It contained many wild allegations. One of the wildest was that this proposition could apply to the morning-after pill. The clue is in the name: contraception. The pill avoids conception; it is not an abortion pill such as that used by the Marie Stopes clinic. If there was any grey area, it is resolved by the very wording of the amendment, which puts the burden of proof in any prosecution on those prosecuting to prove that a life has been ended:
"the life of an unborn child".
The prosecution would have to prove that life had started and was then ended by the abortion.
It can be taken within 72 hours after intercourse.
The burden of proof in any prosecution of anyone in these circumstances — and it would be to the criminal standard of beyond all reasonable doubt — would be to prove that life existed and that life was ended by the act of abortion. For the Justice Minister to peddle such a patently elementary contention really is beyond belief. I could not believe it when I heard him on the radio postulating that view.
This is the Justice Minister who, of course, like any Minister, has immediate access to the law officer, the Attorney General. Has he asked the Attorney General whether he is right about what he said in this letter? Maybe he will tell us. Who has he asked? I heard him say that the Department has its own departmental solicitors. Why did he not go to the fountainhead of legal advice in governmental circles, the Attorney General? Is he not looking for fulsome, objective, conclusive advice? If he was, why did he not go there? Maybe he will tell us. Instead, he was quite happy to send a letter, the content of which is quite amazing.
It is just like some of the other things that have been said in today's debate, such as the suggestion that, if someone is in a private scheme and requires urgent medical attention that is a termination, they cannot have it in a private clinic. Anyone who said that has not read the amendment. When they read the amendment, they will see that clause 11A(2)(b) states specifically that it will be a defence that:
"ending the life of the unborn child were lawfully performed without fee or reward in circumstances of urgency when access to premises operated by a Health and Social Care Trust was not possible."
Someone in that emergency situation who requires the urgency of attention that means that access to the health service is not possible has an enshrined defence. To suggest, as I heard some suggest, that this would impede the legitimate work of clinics and put women in situations of extremis and difficulty is utterly, utterly wrong. It is just as wrong as the suggestion that, in some way, it would infringe the services directive, which just happens not to apply to health service provision.
The number of straw men that have been set up by those wishing to vote down this amendment and to continue to deliver an ever-expanding abortionist agenda is quite shocking and indicative of the lengths to which some will go to make any case to protect the Marie Stopes clinic. The Marie Stopes clinic is not an institution that is deserving of defence or protection. It is an institution that is brazenly in the business of campaigning to bring abortion on demand to this Province. Yet there are those who, for the optics, will say that they are opposed to that, but today will be the very people going out of their way and doing everything that they can, in committing the perversion of a petition of concern, to make sure that it stays in business. They are the people who stand exposed for their double-dealing and their weasel words on this most important issue.
I reiterate my party colleague's earlier remark that the Alliance Party has no policy on abortion and that its elected representatives take their stands according to their own conscience. I am speaking as an individual MLA who has consistently expressed my support for women's reproductive rights, and I make no apologies for it.
If the real motivation is that Marie Stopes be regulated, the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety should bring in legislation to do just that. To add this to the Criminal Justice Bill at the last minute without public consultation lacks credibility, and it appears to me — [Interruption.]
Thank you, Mr Speaker. After all, our health trusts contract non-NHS health services regularly to cut waiting lists. The sole aim of the amendment is to stop Marie Stopes offering legal termination services to women who are faced with an unplanned or crisis pregnancy. Marie Stopes is a non-profit-making organisation of international repute and has stated that it will operate within the law in Northern Ireland — [Interruption.]
— as it does in 40 other countries. Only medical abortion up to nine weeks' gestation is available, and no surgical operation is performed at all in the centre, whereas NHS abortions here can be performed up to 24 weeks. The lack of clear guidelines makes many medical staff very nervous about making decisions on termination, which has resulted in halving the number of legal abortions carried out over the past few years from about 80 to 40 cases a year. The amendment has nothing to do with abortion law, and the focus of the debate should be on the blatant violation of process. However, I cannot stand by and listen to some of the comments made — [Interruption.]
— and not defend a woman's right to choose and to decide what is right for her in her circumstances. Do Members not see how completely hypocritical it is for us to turn a blind eye to the practice of women seeking terminations elsewhere? Almost 1,500 women a year are known to have travelled, over recent years, to England to procure abortions. This is not only an equal rights issue, as this service is available in the rest of the UK, it is also to do with class. It is shameful that some Members who claim to support grass-roots communities would attempt to block women, particularly working-class women with limited financial means, from accessing local services that are available within the law at a much lower cost than having to travel outside of Northern Ireland.
Thank you for your guidance, Mr Speaker. We also know that many women can now access abortion pills online.
This amendment is objectionable for several reasons. It is motivated by a personal vendetta. The language used is confusing, and the Criminal Justice Bill is an inappropriate place to deal with this matter. However, the most obvious weakness lies in the fact that there has been no opportunity for consultation with the wider community.
Our role as legislators comes with great responsibility. We owe it to everyone to ensure that major changes to legislation such as this are done with proper consultation and consideration. Many Members talked in support of the amendment. They are out of touch with the public, particularly with young people who want to see a liberal and progressive society that respects people's rights to make informed choices for themselves.
Furthermore, this amendment is a deliberate attempt to detract attention from the fact that the Health Minister was forced by the Family Planning Association's court action to announce that he is publishing the abortion guidelines for consultation. The amendment was tabled on the same day that Mr Poots made that announcement. What a coincidence. Is this an abuse of the process to divert attention from the DUP's failings?
I oppose the amendment because it is manipulative and serves only the purpose of some MLAs' own agenda. I oppose the amendment because I believe that politicians should make decisions based on pragmatism and not on religious dogma. [Interruption.]
There are two groups of honest people in the Chamber this afternoon. There are those who support the amendment, and there is Mr Steven Agnew. Steven Agnew at least has had the principle and the honesty to stand up and say that he is pro-abortion on demand in Northern Ireland. That is why he has not had a particularly rough ride. I disagree fundamentally with everything that he believes on the subject, but at least he signed the petition of concern because he knew what it would help to deliver: abortion on demand in Northern Ireland. That is what he wants.
Then we have the middle ground, comprising those who are pro-abortion and who want the 1967 Act introduced into Northern Ireland but do not have the courage to stand up —
— in front of the electorate and admit that they are pro-abortion. They are worried when they see 250,000 people, many of whom are nationalist voters, signing a petition in a very short period. They are scared to come out and be truthful. Of course, as Mr Allister has shown, when they are away from the prying lenses of the camera in Strasbourg, they are very different people: they are pro-abortion left, right and centre.
I speak this afternoon as a mere Back-Bencher in my party. I am not speaking as vice Chair of the Health Committee, and I am certainly not speaking in any other role that I may adopt in the future. I speak entirely as a private individual who finds the killing of the unborn child totally repugnant. I am privileged and proud to be the vice Chairman of the all-party pro-life group at Stormont, under the excellent leadership of Pat Ramsey — [Interruption.] Chris Lyttle, yes, we will come to that later on. A report from a leading statistician came before us 18 months ago, and he worked out that, had we had the 1967 Abortion Act in Northern Ireland, we would have lost the lives of 91,000 people. In other words, there are 91,000 people, many of whom are still alive, walking the streets of Northern Ireland — they could be dentists, doctors, farmers, technicians, secretaries, even MLAs — and making a positive contribution to Northern Ireland. Those people —
I thank the Member for giving way. I think that I thank him for his complimentary comments at the beginning of his contribution. He mentioned statistics, and I asked Jonathan Bell previously where the statistics came from. Can the Member tell me why a member of my staff was not permitted to attend those all-party group meetings so that we could receive those statistics and analyse and scrutinise them and use or not use them to contribute to the debate?
Because, Mr Agnew, it does what it says on the tin: it is the all-party pro-life group. If you look at that title very carefully, you will see that that includes MLAs who believe in the protection of the life of the unborn child. We discovered that information about the deliberations of the pro-life group were leaking out. Since that decision was made, there have been no further leaks from the group. You cannot have people in the group who are —
In more general terms, Mr Speaker, if we discovered that a member of an all-party group was acting outside the terms of that group, that group would be perfectly within its rights to review its membership. It was for that reason that we decided to exclude a researcher, because that person made it very clear that she did not support what the all-party group was trying to do, and that is how we will resolve that issue.
I thank the Member for giving way. Does he accept that, since 1967, between six million and seven million abortions have been recorded in Britain? That is an irrefutable statistical fact.
Yes. Indeed, if that figure had been directly extrapolated to Northern Ireland, it would be 200,000 people. However, because there is a lesser propensity for people to agree to abortion in Northern Ireland, and looking at the ethnicity and the religious demography of Northern Ireland, the figure is more accurately put at 91,000 and counting. However, as someone said — I think that it was Mr Bell — that is more than the largest district council area in Northern Ireland, apart from Belfast. It is also larger than any of the constituencies. Just think: that is Windsor Park filled five times, and it is Lansdowne Road filled with 30,000 to spare. Just think about it: all those lives wiped out by abortion on demand. People may accuse us of being emotional, but I have a problem with the killing of 91,000 people because they are inconvenient.
Mrs Lo, the honourable Member for South Belfast, made a statement to the media, and I hope I misheard her because she said one of the situations in which she felt it would be justified for a woman to abort a child was when a businesswoman had built up a successful company, had three children, was in her mid-30s and the fourth child might have interrupted the growth of her company. I hope I heard her wrong, because if that indicates —
I would be interested if she would clarify that remark because that is how I picked it up. However, if that indicates the value of life, that you simply extinguish an unborn child because it may affect the growth of your company, that seriously undermines my view of what constitutes the preciousness of life.
So, we had a situation in GB where, unfortunately, sadly —
I can give you clarification. What I said on the radio was that, when I was a community worker, I worked with a woman who was in her 40s and ran a shop. If she had to carry through with the pregnancy and look after the baby, she would have had to give up the shop and have no means of keeping herself and the baby. [Interruption.]
So, the life of the child was held in the balance as to the future viability of a shop. Well, I am sorry — I believe that the life of a child is a lot more precious than that. I have severe moral difficulties with a society where 6·7 million people have been aborted since 1967. The people who insisted on bringing in the 1967 Act were using those particular cases, the very small number of cases that are, I accept, very difficult. However, they brought in the new rules in 1967 to enable those cases to be dealt with. What happened? The floodgates were opened, and now over 99% of the children who are killed in the womb in the United Kingdom and Great Britain are killed because they are simply not convenient. That is a sad reflection on this society and the way in which we reached this stage.
Northern Ireland has managed to avoid that, I think more by accident than design. We have the 1861 Act, the 1945 Act and the Bourne case. I accept that the law is antiquated, confused and complex but the combination of those three enactments has meant that the law in Northern Ireland has held firm and the number of abortions carried out annually in Northern Ireland are tiny in comparison with the rest of the United Kingdom.
I asked in August last year for further clarification, and I am glad that the Minister reacted quickly to that. We will now be seeking explanations about why even the small number of abortions is carried out. The statisticians would tell me that the chances of a woman being in a situation where her life would be endangered by a pregnancy would occur, on average, once every two years in Northern Ireland. That likelihood is rapidly becoming even more remote because standards of care have increased dramatically.
You are then left with the situation where her long-term health could be permanently damaged by the pregnancy. There is very little evidence that that happens. In fact, there is very little evidence of any significant number of cases of that in Northern Ireland where there is a need for an abortion.
A telling report was issued in the Irish media last week in which Professor Casey looked at every case of suicide in the Irish Republic since 1950 — a 60-year period — and five had been connected with pregnancy. Five out of hundreds and hundreds of thousands of births, and not one of those suicides was directly related to the pregnancy but to other ongoing mental issues.
Therefore, those special cases, as they are called, are getting fewer and fewer, but I have no doubt that the Anna Los and Steven Agnews of this world, who are clearly pro-abortion, will use those special cases to breach the dyke and open the floodgates for abortion on demand. Marie Stopes uses those arguments time and again to try to prise open —
I appreciate the Member giving way. I am just trying to ascertain whether the logical conclusion of his argument is that abortions that are carried out through the NHS in Northern Ireland, given that he says it is unlikely there would be circumstances laid down in law that an abortion would be necessary, need to be investigated because he believes they are performed illegally?
I am saying that we need to have the hard information to make absolutely certain that every abortion that is undertaken in Northern Ireland is undertaken strictly within the law and is strictly necessary. Until we have that information, we are not in a position to say that.
By the way, the figure that was quoted by Mrs Lo is wrong. The average number of abortions in Northern Ireland is around 41 to 43 per annum. The figures have to differentiate between abortions where the foetus is already dead and those in which it is not. There are instances in which the foetus has, sadly, passed away as a result of another condition and has to be removed from the womb. I do not think that anyone in the Chamber would call that abortion. So, the number of abortions in which the foetus was actually alive at the time is in the low forties. I want to be very clear in my mind that those figures are absolutely a true reflection of the legal position in Northern Ireland. We will know that, and that will be good news, when we have that clarity.
I think that the most important issue we need to deal with is the role of the Alliance Party in assisting Sinn Féin. I am absolutely certain that Mrs Lo signed that petition of concern with the full consent of the Alliance Party. I am absolutely certain that she would not have carried out that act without first referring it to her Chief Whip and getting consent from the party, because she knows the consequences of signing the petition of concern. She knows that by signing the petition of concern she is helping the Marie Stopes clinic to continue operating in Northern Ireland and to carry out abortions. She knows that. That is the consequence of what she did.
I thank the Member for giving way. Our Chief Whip is sitting here. I did not consult my Chief Whip. I think that people in my party know my stand, and, when I have spoken in public, I have always said that I am not giving the party's set policy. There is no set policy on abortion in the Alliance Party. I am speaking as an individual MLA. I am speaking according to my conscience and having worked as a social worker and as a community worker with many women who were in very difficult circumstances. We need to be walking in the shoes of those women. It is very easy for men to say that you just carry it through nine months. It is not that simple. You have to bring up the child for the next 20-odd years.
The vast majority of them were aborted because they simply were not convenient. It is as simple as that; none of these tragedies. In fact, a large number of women in the United Kingdom have had six, seven and eight abortions. Forty per cent of those who have abortions have already had two or more abortions. The third or the fourth child was just not convenient. I have a problem with that, morally; I am sorry. If anybody has any difficulties with me saying that, I am sorry. I just cannot abide it, and I cannot understand how any logical, sensible, rational human being can support that.
The reality is that I hope that the Alliance Party is going to discipline Mrs Lo. By doing what she has done, she has not only been seen to support the pro-abortion policies of Sinn Féin but has effectively ensured that the Alliance Party votes will count for nothing in an hour's time, because, when a petition of concern is tabled, the votes from the middle, non-aligned parties do not count. It is entirely a headcount of nationalists and unionists.
I believe that Mrs Lo —
This is a very serious issue that needs public consultation. That has not been done. How can we call it a democratic process, if this is being sneaked through the back door of the House?
I hope that the honourable Member for South Belfast will have exactly the same views when her party's Minister of Justice will try to sneak through the opening of courts on Sundays for the G8 in an amendment to the legislation for which there has been no consultation and no debate. It has been brought in. Should we have been irresponsible and put in a petition of concern against it? No, we did not. We are not going to abuse the petition of concern for our own devious methods. We are not going to do that.
I thank the Member for giving way. Does he agree with me that, in essence, while we are stopping this amendment, we are actually allowing and permitting abortions to take place without any regulation? We could have had our discussions at a later stage about the rights and wrongs of bringing forward different legislation if that is what people wanted to do. However, on this particular issue, the people who have signed the petition of concern are allowing abortion to take place without any regulation.
They knew what they were doing when they signed that petition of concern. She will, no doubt, traipse into the lobby tonight to vote for another amendment on which there has been no consultation. Utter hypocrisy.
I tell you this: I am absolutely convinced. I congratulate Mr Agnew and Mr Maginness on the way in which they have handled themselves on this very difficult issue. They have been tremendous spokesmen for the pro-life campaign. Had Mr Agnew —
Sorry: Mr Givan and Mr Maginness. I have no doubt that had there been time, and had we had warning about the Marie Stopes clinic, and we had gone through the whole process of legislation, whether through a private Member's Bill, Committee Bill or whatever, you would still have made exactly the same decision. You are simply hiding behind the issue of consultation because you do not want Marie Stopes to be curtailed in Northern Ireland. Let us be truthful about it. You want children to be aborted in large numbers in Northern Ireland. The honourable Member is hiding behind the fig leaf of consultation. I have no doubt that Sinn Féin, with its form, would have done exactly the same.
Sinn Féin, Ms Lo and Mr Agnew are perfectly entitled to stand up and speak for the pro-abortion cause in Northern Ireland and demand that the floodgates be opened and tens of thousands of children be killed in Northern Ireland. That is their right. I disagree with it. I, certainly, disagree with those who are elders on a Sunday morning, but seem to have rather a different view on a Monday afternoon. However, they have a right to do that. That is not the problem I have. My problem is with the petition of concern. Sinn Féin, Ms Lo and Mr Agnew knew that, on a cross-community basis, a majority of MLAs in the House would vote for the protection of the unborn child. You knew that. You did the sums.
Ms Lo knew that the vast majority of people on these Benches would vote to protect the unborn child. The vast majority of people in the SDLP and a significant majority of the Ulster Unionist Party were going to vote to protect the unborn child — and, of course, Mr Allister. You did the sums. You knew that the community that this Building represents —
The honourable Member for South Belfast knew. She did the sums. She may have some strange moral views. However, she did the sums. She can do the arithmetic. She knew that a majority of Members, on a cross-community basis, would vote to protect the life of the unborn child and to stop babies being killed in the Marie Stopes clinic. So, what did you do? You ran to the Sinn Féin Whip's office. In your enthusiasm, you were one of the first to sign the petition of concern.
The full responsibility for the fact that the Marie Stopes clinic will be open for abortions and business as usual rests entirely at the feet of those who signed that petition. You knew the consequences of what you were doing. Your party knew. The one thing that Ms Lo did that was honest was to run to the press at a very early stage and say that there was a petition of concern and that she would sign it. The Alliance Party was fully aware of what was going on and allowed it to happen. Clearly, that suits the Alliance Party because the hidden agenda here is that, in fact, it is a pro-choice, pro-abortion party. Why does it not, now, save us all the problems by coming out and saying so? Why does it not do that? Mr Dickson sat on the Justice Committee —
It bears repeating — Ms Lo has said it, and I will state once again — that, for members of the Alliance Party and its elected representatives, the issue of being either for or against abortion is entirely a matter of conscience, as, I understand, it is for the Ulster Unionist Party. Members are, therefore, free to express their opinion on the matter. Other parties may choose to deal with the matter in different ways, but that is the way we have chosen, through our democratic processes, to deal with it. It also bears repeating that the debate today is neither a pro-abortion nor an anti-abortion debate. Even those who tabled the amendment made that clear in their opening remarks.
I think that the Alliance Party is guilty by its complicity. It knew what it was going to do. I have to say that, after a lot of effort, we were able to prise from Mr Dickson that he is a member of the all-party group on sexual health, and we know the main agenda of that group. So what we have here —
I want to put it on the record as well that you are absolutely correct, Mr Wells: I am a member of the all-party group on sexual health. Like the description of your all-party pro-life group — I respect and understand your views on that — the name says it all. You are not aware of my views on abortion, either for or against. My reason for being a member of that group is, as the name says, to support the broad issue of sexual health.
Audrey Simpson — sorry — is the lead person on that group, and we all know, for many years, Mrs Simpson's views on the issue. The FPA has been campaigning for years for abortion in Northern Ireland. So do not try to hide behind that. Throughout the entire process of the Bill, Mr Dickson, the honourable Member for East Antrim, has done everything that he can to frustrate the pro-life amendment and block any progress on the issue. Let the Alliance Party be honest and come out and say, "We are a pro-choice party". We would respect it for doing so because then we could bury the issue and would know where we stand. So let them come out and say it. [Interruption.]
Mr Wells has perhaps best described where he, at least, is coming from by describing the amendment as pro-life. This, by the admission of those who tabled the amendment, is neither a pro-life nor a pro-abortion debate. This is a debate about how we regulate the delivery of this service inside and outside the NHS.
This is protecting women and children from profiteering. He knows the track record of Marie Stopes. In Committee, I asked whether the witnesses knew Mr Paul Cornellisson, and you could see from the reaction that they were immediately on the defensive. Mr Agnew and I viewed the video, but we came to very different conclusions about what is meant by the sentence, "We carry out illegal activity."
The same organisation was run out of Zambia for the same reasons: it was found guilty of performing illegal abortions there. So this is not even a private commercial provider with no track record. It is a very profitable organisation, with an income of over £100 million a year, which benefits enormously from the abortion industry. This is not even about the principle of it being a private clinic. It is about the principle of who it is getting into bed with in the form of Marie Stopes.
Marie Stopes's reputation is known worldwide as being there primarily to change the law to allow liberal abortion throughout the world. The Alliance Party knows that and is very aware of where Marie Stopes stands, but it has decided to throw its hat in the ring and support profiteering out of the deaths of children through abortion. The Alliance Party, in the form of Mr Dickson, sat during the evidence session and heard the Chairman quite rightly quote one member of staff who had to leave because she was sickened by the number of quotas that it had to carry out abortions. Women were hardly through the door of the clinic before they were being urged to have a quick termination of their pregnancy. That is guilt by association.
Members still have a chance to rein back from all this. You have signed a petition of concern. My understanding, from the Speaker's Office, is that once a petition of concern is signed, it cannot be withdrawn. Sadly, there is no provision for someone who has signed a petition of concern to withdraw their name from it. That is a major flaw in the Standing Orders of the House. What is the sense in standing here for five hours, trying to convince people that they are wrong and that they should support a pro-life stance, if they change their minds but cannot do anything about it?
Even if you have signed the petition of concern, you do not need to march through that Lobby tonight. You do not need to do that; you can make a stand. You can say, "We make mistakes. We make errors of judgement." I hope that all the arguments that were made by Mr Givan, Mr Bell and many others have indicated that many of your fears and apprehensions are wrong. Mr Allister quite clearly pointed out that your concerns about IUD and the morning-after pill are simply wrong; they are based on false information that was provided by the Minister, who did not check before he issued the letter. No one has said to me that we have not been able to clarify it. Therefore, if you admit that you have made a mistake, you can still rectify that by not voting tonight for the continuation of abortions in the Marie Stopes clinic.
I thank the Member for giving way. The issue of the morning-after pill has come up time and again, and I have tried to address it. The literature of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, which, in Mr Wells's terms, is not a pro-abortion organisation, states:
"The morning-after pill can also act as an early abortifacient. It attacks the womb's lining, so that if fertilisation has already taken place the newly-created embryo is unable to implant."
The morning-after pill can, although not always, act as an abortion pill.
Again, you were not listening, Mr Agnew. Mr Allister very clearly explained that situation. The onus, of course, is on the prosecutor to show that there was life. That is a protection for anyone who is caught up in that situation.
The reality is that if all the Members opposite, from the Sinn Féin Benches and the Alliance — who I notice are telling me that it is neutral on the subject, but its members are all going to troop through the Lobby against the amendment. So much for your neutrality. So much for allowing a conscience. In other words, you have been whipped to vote.
Yes: do they have a conscience? The Alliance Party has been whipped to vote against the amendment on an issue on which it says that there is freedom of choice. That is interesting. The reality is that those who have signed the petition of concern and who will troop through the Lobby tonight against the amendment are allowing vulnerable women to end up in a private profit-making clinic that makes decisions that we, as an Assembly, will know nothing about. We will be in total darkness about what decision was made and why it was made. At the end of the day, is that the best place for any woman in Northern Ireland to be in, who is going through a difficult period in her life?
Sinn Féin, throughout my time on the Health Committee, has campaigned relentlessly against healthcare provision in the private sector. It has said that it must always be provided by the state. However, when it comes to the first decision on where this crucial aspect of healthcare is provided, it votes for private provision for profit. The hypocrisy of that is not lost on a large number of people in Northern Ireland. It certainly is not lost on the people who support the real petition of concern: the 250,000 people of this country who are extremely unhappy. Now that the cat is out of the bag, they will know, when it comes to the next election, where their parties stand on the issue.
All that I can do on behalf of the unborn child — perhaps it is some unborn child who has not even been conceived but may end up losing his or her life in that clinic in Great Victoria Street — is say, turn back now. Let us stop that happening in Marie Stopes, and then let us look at whether further legislation is required. However, at least put a stop to that now so that no child will ever lose its life in that clinic. My conscience is clear. I just hope that all those in the Alliance Party have a clear conscience as well.
Like others have done, at the outset, I will outline my party's stance on the issue of abortion. For the Green Party, it is a matter of conscience for individual members. That is the position that we took. We had a vote on being a pro-life party. It did not receive the two thirds majority required. We took a vote on being a pro-choice party. It did not receive the full two thirds required. When we took a vote on allowing it as a matter of conscience, it received unanimous support. So, that is the Green Party's position on abortion.
As to my position — I have been called various things — I believe that there should be greater liberalisation of the law in Northern Ireland. It is not necessarily the case that I believe that we should extend the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland needs to have its own legislation on abortion. However, we need to hear the wider views of the people of Northern Ireland, and I have stated that there should be a referendum on the issue. That would put to bed the continual claims by people to speak on behalf of the majority of the people of Northern Ireland. That is a baseless assertion. The only evidence that we have are the polls that have been conducted, which show that there are a wide range of views on this issue. No one person can speak for the majority of people in Northern Ireland. There is no, single majority view, and we do not have full evidence as to what that is. Until we take this, as a single issue, to the people of Northern Ireland, we will not know their views. So, any assertion by people that they speak on behalf of the majority of people in Northern Ireland is without basis.
I will have a look at it. The petition came from an organisation that is against abortion.
The DUP and others, including Mr Ramsey and his party, have said that they support the provision of abortion under the current law. I think that we should be clear on that. We keep hearing these terms "pro-life" and pro-choice", but it is not as simple as that. It would a nice world were things that black and white. Mr Molloy made the point that the DUP are pro-abortion and, in certain circumstances, it is. Its Members have clearly outlined their support for the current legislation in Northern Ireland for the provision of abortion when a women's life or long-term health is at risk. So, in that sense, the DUP is pro-abortion. In that sense, I am in favour of the provision of abortion when it protects the life or long-term health of a woman. In that instance, I am in favour of the medical intervention necessary to provide care for that woman.
Neither a pro-life position nor a pro-choice position is absolute. It is not an absolute claim, and there is a spectrum of opinion. It is regrettable that, to some extent, there has been efforts to move this debate to that of a pro-life versus pro-choice. That is not what it is, it is not what the amendment is about and the Members who proposed the amendment have made that clear. I will now move on to the amendment.
This is a debate about an ill-conceived amendment. It is badly drafted and, as has been mentioned, it has been brought to the House without proper public consultation. It is for that reason that it will be opposed by pro-choice and pro-life Members. That is an indication of the fact that it is a bad piece of legislation.
The amendment seeks to criminalise any person who ends the life of an unborn child at any stage of development. The flaw in that is that there is no definition in law of an unborn child. There is no definition in Northern Ireland law, UK law, Irish law nor, to the best of my knowledge, international law. Equally, there is no definition in medicine of an unborn child. Indeed, when I pressed Mr Poots to give me a definition of when the life of an unborn child begins, I did not receive clarity. Unclear and ambiguous legislation is bad legislation.
There are medical definitions for the terms zygote, blastocyst, embryo and foetus but none for unborn child. If we were to insert a bit of science and have a genuine, calm, rational and coherent discussion around these issues, such as the capacity of the foetus, we might have a more sensible conversation. It is regrettable that we have not done so.
I said in my statement today that if there was a referendum on this issue, the legislators of the House should respect the views of the people of Northern Ireland. If that was the case, I would respect those views, and I believe that we should legislate accordingly. However, a consultation will never be conclusive of the entire views. It can be informative but not conclusive.
It is because the term unborn child has no definition that I believe that this amendment, if passed, could have unintended consequences. It seems clear to me that those who tabled the amendment did not intend to criminalise the taking of the morning-after pill or the use of the coil. What is not clear, however, is whether the proposal would criminalise the morning-after pill and the coil. That is why I believe it to be poor legislation: it is open to interpretation and its effect is unclear. Due to its lack of clarity, we would not know the effect of the amendment until a legal precedent is set. We are being asked by those who tabled the amendment to vote in favour of something when we do not know what its outworkings will be. Again, in that sense, it is bad law.
As well as being bad law, it has been bad process. The subject of the amendment was not included in the original consultation on the Criminal Justice Bill. It was not included in any of the debates on the Bill to date. It has not been out to public consultation, so Members have not been informed by that in making their —
I thank the Member for his intervention. He knows that the issues are not equally divisive. That is not something that we can say a great number of people outside the House oppose. I am not aware of that; I have not been lobbied on it. I have been lobbied on this by those in favour and those against. I have not had barrages of people send me e-mails, phone me or write letters telling me not to vote in favour of the Sunday courts amendment. Sometimes uncontroversial amendments need to be moved at a late stage, but you could never call this amendment uncontroversial.
Much has been made in the debate about the best care available for women. That is an important point. The care of women and the voices of women should be at the heart of the debate. It is regrettable that the voices of women will never be at the heart of the debate of an Assembly that is over 80% male. [Interruption.]
Those who tabled the amendment and its supporters say that they want the best care for women. Surely, the best people to judge this are the women themselves in consultation with health providers. Jonathan Bell suggested that the amendment reflects the cross-community view across Northern Ireland, but as I said, I believe that assertion to be baseless because we do not have that evidence. He also cited the views on the issue of the Presbyterian Church and the Catholic Church. Although those organisations have a right to put forward that view, and as legislators we should listen to them, I do not think that they could claim to represent the views of the vast majority of women across Northern Ireland, given that they are male-dominated organisations.
In response to the comment made from a sedentary position, I am not claiming to represent the vast majority of women in Northern Ireland or the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland. I am representing my views, my party's views and those who have asked me to make their voice heard on this issue. Until we have a referendum, I do not believe that we will know who represents the vast majority or slight majority or minority in this debate.
Although I cannot speak for the vast majority of women, I seek to afford them the choice so that they can determine their own healthcare. The amendment seeks to limit choice. The supporters of the amendment have said that the best healthcare is in the NHS, and I would not necessarily disagree with that, if it were available. As has been pointed out, we now have guidelines on the provision of abortion in Northern Ireland, but I have not seen them. Therefore, I cannot comment on whether or not the guidelines on provision are sufficient. As was pointed out, they were released to the media but were not released to MLAs. So, I have not seen them and cannot comment much further than that, except to say I welcome that we will soon, I believe, have guidelines and a public consultation on them. I hope that it is soon, given that they have been given to the press. Only then can I determine whether or not —
I cannot allow the Member to make that statement unchecked. They were not given to the press; they were leaked by someone unknown. There has not been a general distribution of that material at all. We cannot control what certain members of the Executive do with material. It happens quite regularly in this House, unfortunately, that certain individuals take it upon themselves to leak material, when it suits them, to the media. If he is thinking that it has been leaked to the press and deliberately withheld from him, that is untrue.
I thank the Member for that clarification. I stand by the point that the guidelines are in the public domain to some extent through what the media has reported on them. However, I have not had time to scrutinise them, so I cannot give definitive support to or reject them, whichever is appropriate. I will do so when I have seen them and had time to analyse them.
So, I do not claim to represent the majority of people in Northern Ireland or, indeed, the majority of women. However, I do seek to afford them choice. As is clear, we have been seeking those guidelines for 12 years. The provision of abortion within the legal circumstances prescribed by our legislation in Northern Ireland has not been freely available to women. On that basis, the choice of private healthcare may be a necessary one.
We have to deal with reality. Much has been said in this debate about facts and realities. We have to deal with the reality that there are women in Northern Ireland who want an abortion. Indeed, women in Northern Ireland have abortions. Some of the figures have been alluded to; over 1,000 women each year access abortion in GB. Abortions are performed in Northern Ireland on the NHS. Abortions through pills purchased online are performed in Northern Ireland without the appropriate medical care. We have women, those who can afford to, accessing abortion in GB. There is a lack of equal access, as I pointed out, between those who can afford it and those who cannot.
I come back to the point made by those who said that they want to see the most appropriate care for women. Figures in the public domain suggest that, each year, hundreds of women take abortion pills that are freely available online without the proper medical care. Whatever people may or may not think about the choice made by those women, surely it would be better if we could give them the appropriate care. The Marie Stopes clinic may afford those women that opportunity, if they are taking the pill within the law. However, I have been clear that I believe in the greater liberalisation of the law. I believe that those women should be able to access that service on the NHS. That would be my preference.
I would prefer them to have that service on the NHS and receive the proper healthcare that they require, but the amendment seeks to prevent women receiving that care and treatment in a private clinic. It does not do enough, and it does not do what the Members have claimed, which is ensure the most appropriate and best healthcare for women in Northern Ireland. It is the case, whether Members like it or not, that abortions are taking place in Northern Ireland. We should accept that fact, and ensure that women in Northern Ireland receive the most appropriate healthcare available.
The proposers and supporters of the amendment have made it clear that, within the current restrictions, they support abortion, but only on the NHS, not in private healthcare. As has been alluded to by some Members, this has become an issue of criminal justice — as indicated by the debate we are speaking in — rather than a question of healthcare. The same Members — including the Member for Lagan Valley, who also happens to be the Health Minister — have no problem with the £130 million spent in the last three years on private healthcare in Northern Ireland.
I made the issue about private healthcare because it is Sinn Féin that objects to privatisation. I have never said that we could not use the private sector to assist us with healthcare, so that is an issue that we do not have a problem with. The difference with Marie Stopes is that it is unregulated and unaccountable to anyone. You are backing something that is unregulated and unaccountable, with the support of the Alliance Party and Sinn Féin, of course.
I thank the Member for his intervention and for making it clear that he is not opposed to private healthcare. I do see what Marie Stopes is offering as healthcare provision. It offers a wide range of services around sexual health to both men and women, and that is one aspect of what it provides. If there is insufficient regulation, then I say to the Member that, in his other role as Minister of Health, he should bring forward that regulation. If sensible regulation comes forward, I will certainly support it.
I have absolutely no problem with the private sector being regulated, and anybody who wants to look at my voting record and my positions to date will see that I have no problem with regulation of the private sector, whether in healthcare or anything else, for that matter. I believe that regulation is necessary in many cases to protect the people of Northern Ireland and ensure the best provision. I hope that we will see greater regulation of private healthcare. If it comes and is sensible, I will support it, but the amendment does not do that. It does not seek to regulate; it merely seeks to ban, and it is clearly intended at one private healthcare provider. In that regard, I believe that it is not good law and it would not be effective law.
Much has been made of the use of the petition of concern. This is the first time that I have ever signed a petition of concern, and I am proud that I have signed it in this case. The petition of concern is there to protect minorities from simple majority rule. It requires cross-community majority support. Mr Bell said that the amendment reflected the cross-community view. If that is the case, let us put it to a cross-community vote and we will see.
This is a male-dominated Assembly. More than 80% of the Members are men. The amendment will affect women, predominantly. There is a lack of representation. As I have alluded to before, I do not believe that the views in this male-dominated Assembly adequately reflect the views of the majority — or significant numbers — of the people of Northern Ireland. So, in that regard, this is a valid use of a petition of concern. I was happy to support it and sign it, and I am proud to have done so.
The DUP, which cries foul at the use of petitions of concern, is the party that has used this instrument most in the Chamber. The DUP used a petition of concern to prevent the ending of dual mandates for their double-jobbing MLAs and councillors, to prevent third-party rights of appeal in planning, denying the general public access to an appeal mechanism against planning decisions, and to protect Sammy Wilson, when he was Minister of the Environment, from admonishment in the House.
I find it strange, then, that on this issue, the DUP believes that the petition of concern is an abuse, but on other issues it sees the instrument as a legitimate mechanism at its disposal to block proposals from other parties when it suits them to do so and, indeed, to block legislation. Again, I cannot say that there was a majority, but there was certainly huge public support for the ending of dual mandates, and the DUP used a petition of concern to block that.
This is a bad piece of legislation, and I outlined the reasons why I believe it to be so. I believe that amendment No 1 is unclear and ambiguous, and I fundamentally disagree with its intent and outworkings. I believe that bad process was introduced at the eleventh hour without public consultation, and that may be part of the reason why —
I will not give way to the Member. I know that he is a Christian man and believes in doing unto others as he would have done unto him, and he refused consistently to give way to Members who opposed his view when he was speaking. If he had afforded me the courtesy, I would have afforded it to him, but he did not do so. [Interruption.] Thank you.
The introduction of amendment No 1 was misguided, which is why it will be rejected by pro-choice and pro-life Members today. I made the point that many in the Chamber who are pro-life believe this to be a bad piece of legislation.
We need to protect women in our society, and we need to create good legislation. Amendment No 1 does neither, and, for that reason, I oppose it.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I had hoped that it would be constructive and that it would be about amendment No 1, but we have had varying success on that. Almost seven hours later, with fairly consistent and constant abuse from the Benches to my left, I can let those Members know that it is highly unlikely that I will give way to any of them from this point forward. I will give them advance warning that we have heard enough from them today.
The dishonesty and the tone of some of the DUP contributions today, in my opinion, serve no argument, cause or Christian purpose whatsoever. The abuse —
The abuse of religion for political purposes today would not have been out of place in a court of Pharisees. The challenge to the Assembly is to increase the regard in which it is held, but I do not think that we have gone too far down that road today with some contributions.
I would, of course, genuinely welcome the opportunity to meet anyone who has legitimate concerns, from a Christian perspective, to discuss these matters in more detail. However, for anyone to say that an objection to amendment No 1 equates to a pro-abortion position is simply — [Interruption.]
For anyone to say that an objection to this amendment equates to a pro-abortion position is simply and disgracefully false. For anyone to say that it is about the protection of the Marie Stopes clinic is false. Rather, it is against a quite bizarre prohibition of private healthcare within the law.
I am not sure which Bible some of the men to my left read or work from, but mine suggests that telling the truth is foundational. For self-professed Christian men to so blatantly misrepresent the truth is genuinely regrettable, and I mean that sincerely. I would ask — [Interruption.] I do, yes, I am speaking from the heart.
I ask them to reflect on what witness they think they have sent out from the Assembly today, given some of their behaviour and the fact that the amendment has quite unnecessarily set people with very similar views on abortion against one another.
The DUP's infatuation with misrepresenting Alliance Party policy has reached hysteria; to the point where it is now contemptuous of the democratic process and the code of conduct expected of MLAs. I — [Interruption.]
I call most respectfully on the Church to reflect on the behaviour of some of the Members who have spoken on its behalf here today. I imagine that many SDLP supporters will also be significantly concerned by that party's supporting the DUP today.
The debate is not about one's view on abortion. I want to be clear that there is no proposal before the Assembly today to alter the law on abortion. For the purposes of clarity and for the record, I will repeat that the Alliance Party view on abortion is that it should be left to the conscience of its members. For the record, I am against any significant extension of the current law on abortion in Northern Ireland. I am in favour of a multiagency and comprehensive provision of quality sex education and crisis advice and support.
I am also in favour of robust guidance and regulation within the law. We need to set clear guidance and robust regulation to ensure that services are provided within the law; not a hastily and poorly presented blanket prohibition of private service provision. The amendment does not encapsulate, as Mr Givan suggested earlier, the values of a liberal democracy. It also appears to fail to take into account, as mentioned by many Members, the significant use that the NHS makes of private provision to supplement its service.
The real smokescreen is that the amendment tries to hide the fact that our Health Minister has wholly failed to deliver such guidelines and was forced to do so by the courts. He has also wholly failed to deliver the robust regulation on private provision that exists in the rest of the UK. It is the Health Minister who has abdicated his responsibility on this matter.
Mr Givan said that much time had been spent on the amendment. Perhaps, if the Minister of Health had spent the same time on regulation, we would not be here today. Mr Givan said that the Justice Minister had shown no urgency on this issue. What urgency has the Minister of Health shown on introducing a regulatory framework, given that it is his responsibility to do so? It is my understanding that such has been the inaction of the Health Minister on regulation that some private providers, such as Marie Stopes, have taken it upon themselves to bring forth matters that puts them within the criteria for regulation — [Interruption.]
— by the RQIA. If the regulation needs to be enhanced, it is for the Minister of Health to show leadership and enhance it.
This is not about one's view on abortion. I have made clear my position, which is that I am against any significant extension of the current law, but I do not think that this amendment should jeopardise democratic principles in response to individual concerns. In a democratic society, a person should have the liberty to elect which type of service they avail of provided that it operates within the law. The challenge is to deliver the most robust regulation possible and ensure that the highest standard of service possible for children, women and men is provided within the law. I am fully committed to supporting the need for delivery on this change and to working to protect all life in Northern Ireland, but I will not support this hasty and misplaced amendment today.
We have certainly had a wide-ranging debate that possibly went ever so slightly beyond the terms of the amendment under consideration.
It is good that the Assembly has the opportunity to discuss sensitive issues like this where ethics, conscience and the law all come together. It is clearly a very personal issue for many people in this society. Indeed, there are very deep feelings on both sides of this argument. The very fact that, from the Bench immediately behind me, we have heard my party colleagues express a variety of options, from pro-choice to pro-life, shows the depth of experience. It also explains for the benefit of those Members who could not understand it, despite all the diatribes that were thrown in this direction, that abortion is an issue of conscience for members of the Alliance Party, as it is for most other parties across the UK. [Interruption.]
What I fear is that the general public may be misled by today's debate into thinking that the amendment was something to do with changing the law on abortion and that the debate was about pro-life or pro-choice. It is not. It is about a very technical issue and one that has caused me significant concerns. The point on which we will be called to vote in a few minutes is a very specific one. It is not about where we stand on the principle of abortion. It is about whether we want the specific words printed on the Order Paper and brought to the Assembly in this way to enter the criminal law of Northern Ireland.
When Mr Givan and Mr Maginness first spoke about this amendment on 'Talkback' two weeks ago, they spoke of the importance of accountability, scrutiny and oversight. I absolutely agree with them. We need a system to bring accountability and oversight to the provision of abortions, as to all medical and surgical interventions, regardless of where they are carried out. I am on record as saying that that needs to be addressed. However, the Assembly needs to stop and think about how we do that. I want to do that because it has significant implications for not just this particular point about the regulation of abortions but for how we consult and engage in the future. If we accept now that a major change in the law that affects people in our community so directly can be made literally at the stroke of the pen, what precedent do we set for the people who come after us?
As far back as 1723, in the case of R v The University of Cambridge, Mr Justice Fortescue set out the principle that a decision-maker should hear the other side. In a court case, he quoted Genesis chapter 3, in which God says to Adam:
"Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat?"
Even God himself, said Fortescue, did not pass sentence until he had given Adam the chance to tell his side of the story.
Does the Member accept that I gave way on every occasion that I was asked to do so? I believe that our argument is so strong that it can sustain any attacks.
Exactly the same principles that he has outlined apply to his amendment on the opening of Sunday courts. I have to say that I have a slight problem with the greater liberalisation of Sunday opening, but I understand where he is coming from. However, there has been no consultation. In fact, there has been an awful lot more consultation on the Givan/Maginness amendment than there has been on his proposal, yet he expects us to traipse through the Lobbies tonight to support him.
Mr Wells has a fair point on that issue. I must confess that it is something that I thought that I would be addressing when we talk about the second group of amendments rather than at this stage. However, let me deal briefly with that point. I accept that there has not been full consultation on the issue of Sunday courts. [Interruption.]
However, the House needs to accept the circumstances in which that proposal has arisen. A request from the Chief Constable, with the support of the Lord Chief Justice, to deal with what would potentially be a major emergency situation in a few months' time, when the G8 is held in County Fermanagh, had to be addressed. This is the only legislative vehicle in which to do it. I accept that it would have been better had there been full consultation on that issue. In the context in which certain courts can sit on Sundays anyway, this minor change dealing with the specific operation of the Magistrates' Court is not in the same league as a fundamental change banning abortions, which would otherwise be lawful, being carried out by private healthcare providers.
The role of consultation on significant issues was fundamental to the establishment of devolution here. It is why Committees meet every week to consider the consultation exercises launched by Departments; why members meet with a whole host of interested bodies at different stages and listen to what they have to say; and why the Executive have published 'A Practical Guide to Policy Making in Northern Ireland', which emphasises the importance of engagement at every stage of the process.
If those are the standards that are required of Departments, surely those should be the standards to which we work as a legislature. Last-minute amendments on substantial issues with direct effects on people, even on small numbers of people, are not the way to do good government and not the way that we should operate in this place.
I hardly need to remind Members that this is an issue in which the courts have taken an interest, as was shown, for example, in the Christian Institute judicial review in 2007, which demonstrated that the courts are willing to give significant consideration to issues of consultation. First and foremost, we should make the issues that underlie this amendment subject to proper consideration and consultation. I encourage the Assembly to think, first, about how we make law and, secondly, about the way that the amendment is framed.
Members will be aware that I took the unusual step of putting in writing a range of concerns about the drafting of the amendment and the unintended consequences that it could have. I am not seeking to give any definitive interpretation of how the courts would approach the provisions. My point is simply that there is real potential for uncertainty and confusion. I reject the suggestion that I sought to cloud the issue. The letter that I wrote to Members last week was based precisely on the legal advice that I was given in the Department about problems with the amendment. I also reject the suggestion that it was somehow clandestine. I have not had the opportunity to look up a dictionary this afternoon to see what "clandestine" means, but I fail to see how drafting a press release in the Department, sharing it with the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, issuing it through the Executive information service and doing media interviews on the basis of it qualifies as clandestine based on anybody's definition of the word.
I thought that Mr Allister would let me get a little bit further into my speech, but I will address that point now. My advice comes from the Departmental Solicitor's Office (DSO), and that is the standard practice that applies to any Minister. The advice of the Attorney General is sought only if it is a cross-cutting matter between different Departments or a matter where there appears to be difficulties and there is a recommendation from the DSO that further advice is appropriate. That was not the case. The advice that I received was entirely clear-cut and absolute, and, therefore, my letter was not, in Mr Allister's terms, selective but was based on the advice that was given to me.
These are issues with different interpretations that, as responsible legislators, we should fully sort out before passing them into law. For example, the amendment talks about the unborn child at any stage of development. That is simply not a term that has been used anywhere in UK legislation and differs from the term "the unborn" that is used in the Irish constitution. So, the amendment brings to the law an undefined term. There may well be very firm views about what it means, and I suspect that there will be very different views in this Chamber at the moment, but those firm views one way or another will not necessarily prevent a great deal of expensive and unnecessary litigation.
Am I to take it that the Member is not opposed to the principle of the amendment but is just opposed to the process? Is he saying that, if there was adequate consultation and all the difficulties that he has were explained to him, he would accept the principle of ensuring that there are no unregulated private abortions in Northern Ireland?
Mr Wells mentioned regulation, which was frequently mentioned by Mr Elliott and also, I think, by Mr Allister. That seems to be one of the issues, but let me proceed, and I will come to that point in a moment.
There is also an issue about the competence of the Assembly to make this amendment, and it very much depends who you listen to. I will be clear: there are two different strands of European law, and that means that competence is not an entirely clear-cut issue. In introducing the amendment, Mr Givan quoted some European jurisprudence, but there is other European jurisprudence. It is a long way short of being clear-cut.
One strand that I have been shown starts with the rules on the common market, to which exceptions are narrowly defined and strictly construed. The other comes from a particular case about the Spanish health service, where in those specific circumstances, the European Court held that the competition rules were not applicable. So, anyone who had an interest could well mount an interesting challenge to the legislation as proposed in this draft amendment.
So, why would we go somewhere where there is such a lack of clarity, rather than take the opportunity to think all these issues through? That is added to the fact that the sponsors of this amendment have not consulted, have not undertaken full policy development and have not looked at the regulatory impact. As an Assembly, those are the kinds of points on which we need to go away and do it properly.
I am also worried about the narrow exception that is made in the legislation. It talks about allowing terminations of pregnancy on premises not operated by a health and social care trust in circumstances where access to health service premises is not possible. The word "possible" is specific and included in that clause. The usual legal provision in such a situation would be where access was “not reasonably practicable in all the circumstances”.
I find it difficult to imagine any circumstances in Northern Ireland with the healthcare system that we have, with 24-hour acute care, where access would not be possible. The provision could mean that a woman who is in a private clinic for elective surgery and develops a complication that requires termination to save her might have to be transferred to a hospital across rush-hour traffic across the city because access to that hospital is still technically possible. The usual formulation in law would clearly apply differently, and that "possible" would apply even though the patient was in a private hospital with a fully equipped operating theatre available and with a consultant obstetrician on duty who was familiar with the patient. That is what the wording of the amendment means. Those are exceptional circumstances, but the House should not pass an amendment that did not allow for them.
To sum up, there is a need for regulation. It is a need that we should address in a considered way, cross-departmentally and with public consultation, not stuck awkwardly into a piece of justice legislation at the last minute.
All of this is just when the Health Minister has indicated that draft guidelines on abortion, long-awaited, are about to be consulted on. That is the point that Mr Wells wanted me to give way on earlier. Those guidelines are necessary and will help to bring clarity, which is the very thing that, unfortunately, this amendment fails to do. I will give way.
Yes. If he is happy with the procedure and the consultation and if he gets clarity on the issues that he is concerned about, does he accept the principle that there should not be unregulated private abortion clinics in Northern Ireland?
The point is the issue of regulation, which I am just coming to. Not criminal sanction, but proper regulation of private healthcare providers, as public healthcare providers are properly regulated.
Of course, we are in the position where the petition of concern puts a different complexion on the debate, and, on the presumption of the faces that I saw of Sinn Féin Members as Mr Wells was making his plea to them to reverse their opinion even though they had signed a petition of concern, it is very possible that this amendment will be defeated on cross-community vote. There are issues that need to be addressed by this House as to what should happen then.
I was under the impression, given what the Health Minister said in an oral answer to the Assembly on 26 November and in a number of written answers since then, that he was considering a range of possible ways of addressing the gap in regulation of private providers. He committed to bringing proposals to the Assembly, and, clearly, issues such as the potential role of RQIA in regulating private healthcare are issues for DHSSPS and not for the Department of Justice.
I shall, therefore, be slightly cautious, Mr Speaker, because you might reprimand me for intruding onto another Minister's territory. As I understand it, the RQIA is responsible for the quality, safety and availability of health and social care facilities. It is just a little bit more than the car-parking spaces or whether the floor is clean. It has an enforcement policy aimed, among other things, at holding to account providers for failures to safeguard health, safety or welfare and exposing deficiencies. It covers areas including clinical governance and safeguarding vulnerable groups. It already inspects some private healthcare and independent hospitals in Northern Ireland. The equivalent body to the RQIA in England and Wales —
Let me finish this point please. The equivalent body to the RQIA in England and Wales, the Care Quality Commission, also licenses abortion clinics and ensures compliance with the standards set by the legislation there. The RQIA's governing legislation states at article 6(1):
"The Department may by regulations make provision ... as to ... the persons in relation to whom or the matters with respect to which, any functions ... are to be exercised".
Also, the Department may, by regulations, make provision conferring additional functions on the RQIA.
Obviously, I acknowledge that it would be for the Health Minister to take advice on whether that was sufficient at present to include private abortion clinics or whether some further legislation was required, but that is an issue for the Minister of Health.
There is an absolutely crucial point that the Minister has not grasped. The RQIA has absolutely no role in deciding whether the clinical decision taken by a doctor in a private clinic falls within the terms of the legislation. It is more the mechanics of the clinic — whether it is properly staffed and has got proper sanitation. That is all covered by RQIA under the Northern Ireland legislation, but it has no input whatsoever into the decision as to whether it is legal or illegal to take the life of an unborn child.
Mr Speaker, again, the issue of how much authority the RQIA has is an issue to be determined by the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, not the Department of Justice.
I understand that there are differences between the current role of the RQIA in respect of NHS facilities and those private facilities where it has a role. However, the point is that it is an issue for DHSSPS to determine the possible extension of that role, the areas that would be covered and the bodies that would be covered.
On that point, while speaking earlier, Mr Poots, a Member for Lagan Valley — as Sue Ramsey would call him — quoted a view that had been expressed by me. It was rather interesting. He appeared to be quoting from a letter that I wrote to the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety on 8 November last year. The precise context in which a Back-Bench Member for Lagan Valley was speaking and quoting a letter addressed to the Minister, I will leave to the House to decide. However, although Mr Poots correctly quoted a paragraph from my letter that said where there is evidence of a crime being committed, the police and prosecuting authorities will investigate, which is the answer to the point just raised by Mr Wells, he somehow forgot the paragraph — as long ago as 8 November last year, when I wrote to him in response to a letter that he had sent me on 22 October — about how the Department of Justice will ensure that the Marie Stopes International Clinic or similar organisations operate lawfully. I said in that letter:
"in terms of regulating practice, you"
— that is, Mr Poots —
"have indicated to the Assembly that you intend to ensure that such private clinics are covered by the Health and Personal Social Services (Quality Improvement and Regulation) (Northern Ireland) Order 2003. I agree that this is the best approach. The RQIA, with its clinical expertise, is best placed to regulate matters which require clinical judgement, and I would suggest that if legislation is needed to bring that about it is brought forward urgently."
I am not sure, Mr Speaker, whether it will be necessary to repeat that point. I believe that we are now in March 2013, and, in November 2012, I acknowledged the role of the justice agencies, such as they are, when there is a suspicion of the law being broken, but I agreed entirely with the point that had been made and was subsequently repeated in answer to oral questions in the House later in November, and in questions for written answer: that the role of regulation of private healthcare is a role for the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to consider in terms of the role of RQIA. I am very happy to accept the role that the Department of Justice has, but it is clear, if we are talking, as many Members today have talked, about regulating private abortion as part of private healthcare, that is a role that lies properly with another Department.
Although that primary responsibility lies with Health, there are issues of criminal law that apply, and that is clearly a cross-cutting, sensitive and controversial matter. Therefore, in advance of the debate, I asked officials to look at the Department of Justice's responsibilities in this area, with a view to bringing the issue to the Executive as a cross-cutting one. I know that there are many strong views in the Assembly and in society on the issue of abortion.
They have been expressed here today in a variety of ways. I accept the absolute sincerity of those who argued for the amendment because of their opposition to abortion and their pro-life stance. Although I find it difficult to accept the personal insults and diatribe from others, I would certainly wish to respect the views of people such as Pat Ramsey, who expressed them sincerely. However, whatever those views, Members of the Assembly have to acknowledge that we owe a duty to the people of Northern Ireland to do things with due consideration and consultation and, above all, well and properly. That is the fundamental reason why I do not and cannot accept this amendment.
I hope that in the time available to me I can crystallise some of the issues from the debate and the amendment tabled by Mr Givan, me and others.
I pay tribute to Mr Givan, who, I believe, has shown great leadership and courage on this issue. In his address to the Assembly, he comprehensively examined all the issues individually and systematically. He made a comprehensive assessment of the situation, analysed the difficulties involved and, on the face of it, made a speech that should persuade every Member of the House to support the amendment.
The kernel of what he said was that the amendment does not change the law on the grounds on which an abortion is carried out. I re-emphasise that point, particularly for those who misrepresented the view that, in some way, we are changing the law. We are not changing the law. The fundamental law remains the same.
The amendment prevents unregulated, unaccountable private clinics from making financial gain from vulnerable women and their unborn children, and ensures that in terrible life-threatening circumstances, the best care is provided free at the point of need in the National Health Service. Who could oppose that? How could anybody in the House who has any sense of conscience oppose that?
We have a duty to the unborn. We also have a duty to protect women in crisis pregnancies and in grave difficulties. The best place to protect them is in the National Health Service, which is where they should be protected. It is a nonsense to say, "It will be all right. Marie Stopes is OK, and a bit of regulation here or there may help out" — the sort of soft touch stuff that we heard today. However, that is the reality of the situation. The RQIA will not give effective supervision, control and accountability over clinical assessments. Would the RQIA know the number of abortions that would take place in the Marie Stopes clinic? According to the evidence given to the Justice Committee on 10 January this year, that would certainly not happen.
No, I will not. Other members of the Committee and I asked the Marie Stopes witnesses how many abortions the clinic had carried out. What was the answer? We cannot tell you. I said, "Let us fast forward to a year down the road of work by your clinic. Will you tell us then how many abortions you have carried out?" What was the answer? The answer was no. The question was also put: "Does the Department of Health know how many abortions you have carried out?" What was the answer? The answer was no. Anybody who tells us that that organisation is acting responsibly is kidding themselves and the public.
No, I am not giving way to anybody because I want to get this concluded. There have been lots of interventions, and people have made their good speeches, sincerely, and so forth, and I respect the point of view of everybody in here, even though I disagree with them and sometimes find them very hard to tolerate, but, nonetheless.
Accountability is very important. If a private organisation, particularly in a sensitive area such as health, is not publicly accountable, which Marie Stopes is not, how can we trust what they are doing as being right and proper within criminal law? Members, it is the criminal law, not regulations or anything else, that governs abortion in Northern Ireland. That is the problem, and that is why we have to amend the Criminal Justice Bill. There is no other way of dealing with this; there is no other way whatsoever.
People have talked here about the lack of process, the lack of consultation, and so forth. Mr Givan, myself and other colleagues banded together as Back-Benchers. We came together in order to try to remedy the situation. That is what we did. As Back-Benchers, we are under no obligation to consult in relation to bringing amendments to any Bill in the House. We are under no obligation whatsoever, but I can tell you, colleagues, that there was more consultation, more discussion and more debate about this amendment than, perhaps, there was about any other amendment that was presented in the Criminal Justice Bill or, indeed, any other amendment that was presented to the House in the past couple of years. There has been more public discussion on this than there has been on anything else, and you say to us that we should have had further public consultation.
There is a net issue involved in this, and, in fact, it was very well summarised by the deputy First Minister. Let me remind colleagues on the Sinn Féin Benches of what the deputy First Minister said when he was discussing Marie Stopes on 'Inside Politics'. He said:
"Well it's a private institution, and I suppose some of us who know Dawn Purvis for a long time are a bit surprised that someone who would be a very strong advocate for the health service is now into effectively a private position within an institution that is setting itself up as something which is, if you like, a competitor to what's happening within the health service."
I support Martin McGuinness. His statement is a good summary of the situation. I cannot understand the position that Sinn Féin has now adopted. I listened with some amusement to the persuasive charm of Caitríona Ruane. She had the sort of charm that a bulldozer might have when clearing a building site. I could almost visualise the television and radio channels being switched over when she was making her remarks. She said that there was a wide range of views in her party, Sinn Féin. I ask you, Mr Speaker: did we hear a wide range of views from the Sinn Féin Benches? We did not. We had identikit speeches, one after the other, not a wide range of views. She also talked about camaraderie. She said that there was great camaraderie. Well, tell that to Mr Tóibín of Meath West, or east, who lost the Whip or was disciplined in Dáil Éireann when he voted against or refused to support a Sinn Féin motion, or one that it was bringing to the Dáil, on a similar issue because he is pro-life. He made that clear. I think that the camaraderie is very limited indeed. Although there might be a wide variety of views — I do not know, but I hope that there would be —
Sorry: I am speaking, not you. If there is a wide variety of views, we did not hear them in the House today. Why? Because those views are being, or must be, suppressed in some way.
The point that I have to make on the issue is that we are dealing with a private institution. We are dealing with one of the most delicate situations that any woman could find herself in. Those who have argued against the amendment in the Chamber today have argued strongly that, essentially, it is all right to have that private institution look after women in such extremis — a private institution that makes money out of abortions. That is the reality of it: it makes money out of abortions. It is not a private institution that gives its services free of charge. It is making money. Ms Ruane is smiling. It is an odious situation to have such an organisation make money out of the misfortune of women in crisis pregnancies. Members should reflect very carefully on the positions that they have adopted.
Ms Ruane made a number of rather nasty references to me, Mr Givan and others, and, indeed, to the SDLP with regard to the by-election. She mentioned cheap electoral gain. There was never any mention of the issue by the SDLP during the by-election.
The SDLP did not raise or attempt to exploit this issue. The fact that the by-election took place at the same as the amendment was tabled was purely coincidental. We made no attempt whatsoever to exploit the issue, so I reject that remark as grossly offensive. I will say this: the issues involved in this were quite plain last week, but Sinn Féin did not make a decision on the petition of concern until after the by-election was over. That was cynical, so do not give us any lessons on cheap electoral gain.
As far as the petition of concern is concerned — if I can use that word — it has been misused in the House in the past. In this situation, we had cross-community support for the amendment inside and outside the House. Indeed, we had support from those not just in Northern Ireland but the Republic. In his speech, Mr Givan talked about support from the Church of Ireland, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland and the Catholic Church. In a very telling sentence, he said:
"People ask what a shared future looks like, and I point to this moment of an SDLP, DUP and Ulster Unionist bringing forward proposed legislation related to the most basic of human rights; the right to life."
I think that, in many ways, that crystallises the nature of the amendment. It should also have encouraged Members of the House who hitherto have disagreed with the amendment to support it, because it encapsulates something good in our society and the Assembly. Given that it is a cross-community, cross-religious and cross-party amendment — it was all those things — it should have been supported, and, in particular, it was and is inappropriate for a petition of concern to be used. The petition of concern was envisaged to deal with broader political issues and issues that involve protecting communities — one from the other. That is why the petition of concern was brought about in the Good Friday Agreement, and this is a gross misuse of the petition of concern.
There has been a lot of talk about the poor drafting of the amendment. This amendment has been expertly and very skillfully drafted and very carefully proofed, and its competency under the law has been carefully checked and proofed. The amendment, if passed, would withstand the rigours of our courts here, the Supreme Court in England and the European Court. I believe that this is a good piece of drafting, and those who say that it is not really ought to take proper legal advice.
It is significant that the Minister of Justice, despite the fact that he regards this in another section of his speech as a cross-cutting issue, did not go to the Attorney General to seek advice. The Attorney General is there to give advice on this type of issue. The Justice Minister did not seek that advice; he sought advice simply from an internal departmental solicitor. That is not the right way to go about business.
No, it is not the right way to do it. If it is a cross-cutting issue, you are saying that you do not have confidence in the senior law officer to give you advice on it.
Does the Member accept that the standard practice is that a Minister goes to the Departmental Solicitor's Office (DSO) for advice, and only if there is an issue of concern with the DSO would a Minister go to the Attorney General for advice? That is established practice, and that is exactly what I did on that occasion.
On a major cross-cutting issue, you go to the Attorney General to seek his advice. Indeed, there is no reason why the Minister could not go to the departmental solicitor to receive that advice, and then, to satisfy himself further, go to the Attorney General. That is not an unreasonable position to adopt, but that was not adopted by the Minister. Regrettably, he issued statements that, I believe, were unhelpful in the process. He knew that the amendment was coming from some members of the Justice Committee and other Members, and that, therefore, it was not an Executive amendment.
I am saddened today. We had a real opportunity to do something very positive: to protect mothers and their unborn children. For all sorts of reasons — I am not going to say spurious reasons — that were presented today and that, I believe, do not carry great weight, we have wasted an opportunity to protect the most vulnerable in our society: women in crisis pregnancy and their unborn children. That is sad. I hope that people will reflect very carefully on what they have done. It has not been good for those children or their mothers, and it has not been good for the House.