This is the first debate that we have had in the Assembly since our law on abortion was changed. I am not intending that the debate should be a discussion of how we got here, although, in passing, it must be noted that we have been subjected to constitutional indignities that I could never have imagined a year ago. Neither Wales nor Scotland would ever countenance being subjected to the extraordinary denial of constitutional due process that was meted out to Northern Ireland on this issue.
There are occasions in life — not very often, but sometimes — when we get to meet someone who is truly inspirational, someone whose passion and vision change the way in which we see the world. That is the case when you meet Heidi Crowter, the young woman who is named in the motion. Heidi is 24 and has Down's syndrome. She works in a children's hair salon, and next month, on Independence Day — 4 July — she will marry her fiancé, James Carter, who also has Down's syndrome and whom Heidi describes as gorgeous. This lady is a joy and brings joy.
When you leave a conversation with Heidi, you leave with your heart full. Heidi Crowter is an extraordinary human being; since February she has been in the news, because she is challenging the law in England and Wales that allows abortion up to birth in cases of disability but not in other circumstances. Heidi describes the law in Great Britain as offensive and hurtful.
In 2020, why would we countenance the disability discrimination that the Westminster Parliament was persuaded to vote on thirty years ago, in 1990, before the advent of disability discrimination legislation and before the UK became a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). We cannot and must not separate the regulations from the people to whom they would apply. The reason why the general upper limit for abortion in Great Britain was set at 24 weeks in 1990 is that 24 weeks was then regarded as the point of viability; that is, the point at which a baby could survive outside the womb. Today, things have advanced, and well over 50% of babies born at 24 weeks survive. The figure becomes much higher as gestation progresses. Notwithstanding that fact, regulation 7(1)(b) of the abortion regulations allows abortion up to birth in circumstances where,
"if the child were born, it would suffer from such physical or mental impairment as to be seriously disabled".
We know from statistics in England and Wales that abortions on the grounds of cleft palate, cleft lip and club foot, which are all conditions that can be addressed through surgery, are deemed to meet the threshold of "seriously disabled" and do happen. The problem with that, as Heidi and other disabled people point out, is simple: it means clearly saying that viable human beings with non-fatal disabilities and conditions like Down's syndrome are worthy of less protection under the law than viable human beings who are deemed to be able-bodied. In turn, that clearly says that people with Down's syndrome or other disabilities are of less value than people without disabilities. That is completely unacceptable in 2020. If we do not agree the motion, we signal to every person with a disability that their life is valued differently from that of others. It is wholly wrong for such discriminatory provisions to have been forced on us.
In the last 30 years, since 1990, Northern Ireland, like every jurisdiction in the UK, has introduced legal protections for individuals with disabilities. Those laws seek to illustrate that those with disabilities are equal to everyone else. The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA) protects the rights of persons with disabilities. The Northern Ireland Act 1998 placed a statutory duty on public authorities to have due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity for persons with a disability. The Disability Discrimination (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 further amended the DDA and included a requirement that public authorities promote positive attitudes towards disabled persons. In 2009, the UK as a whole ratified the UNCRPD. Those laws are just laws. They reflect the fact that each and every person, regardless of ability or disability, is of value and worth. Do we wish to negate all that progress?
Given the changes in the last 30 years, it is astonishing that the UK Government should give Northern Ireland the 1990 legislation in 2020. There has been no attempt to consider whether the legislation is suitable in a 2020 Northern Ireland context. The only concession to bringing the provision up to date is to change the language from "seriously handicapped" to "seriously disabled". Is "seriously disabled" not quite a high threshold? The threshold of "seriously disabled" in regulation 7 has exactly the same meaning as "seriously handicapped" in the Abortion Act 1967. Ironically, the change from "handicapped" to "disabled" simply reflects the fact that the word "handicapped" is now rightly rejected as pejorative by disabled people. That misses the more basic point that, if one wants to update the law to reflect changing attitudes to disability, the more appropriate way of doing that would be to not allow abortion on that basis at all.
It is extremely disturbing that the Government have chosen to ignore the views of the UNCRPD in its latest report on the UK, which stated:
"The Committee is concerned about perceptions in society that stigmatize persons with disabilities ... and about the termination of pregnancy at any stage on the basis of fetal impairment ... The Committee recommends that the [UK] amend its abortion law accordingly ... without legalizing selective abortion on the ground of fetal deficiency."
Nor has the UK Government acknowledged the views of the Supreme Court, which has considered the issue of whether, under the European Convention, there is a human right to abortion in cases of non-fatal disability. The court, albeit in a non-binding judgement, found that no such right existed; indeed, Lord Kerr stated:
"UNCRPD is based on the premise that if abortion is permissible, there should be no discrimination on the basis that the foetus, because of a defect, will result in a child being born with a physical or mental disability."
He also said:
"many children born with disabilities, even grave disabilities, lead happy, fulfilled lives. In many instances they enrich and bring joy to their families and those who come into contact with them."
I think that everyone in the Assembly would agree with that assessment.
In truth, the UK Government's explanatory memorandum makes it plain that, rather than being guided by the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) report, which actually suggests far more modest changes to Northern Ireland's abortion laws than those in the regulations, their guiding concern is to make sure that any abortion that a woman can have in England can also be had in Northern Ireland. That is why, for all the talk about 12 weeks, the regulations actually allow abortion up to 24 weeks on effectively the same grounds as apply in England and up until birth in cases of disability. Neither of those provisions is required by CEDAW.
Lord Shinkwin, who is seriously disabled, introduced the Abortion (Disability Equality) Bill in the 2016-17 session of the Westminster Parliament. He said:
"I utterly reject this medical mindset that clings to the idea that a disabled baby is a medical failure to be eradicated through abortion. I beg no one for my equality. I know I have as much right as anyone to be alive."
The charity Disability Rights UK, commenting on Lord Shinkwin's Bill, said:
"fundamentally it is about equality. Wherever Parliament sets the number of weeks after which abortion is not permitted, it should be exactly the same whether the pregnancy is likely to result in a disabled or a non-disabled child. All lives are equal."
Let us be crystal clear about what voting for the motion means. You will be voting to say that Northern Ireland rejects abortion law that directly discriminates against a human being purely on the basis of disability. Only that group of viable humans can be aborted up to term. You will be saying that the Assembly does not agree that it is right that unborn children with Down's syndrome or a cleft palate can be aborted just because they have those conditions. You will be voting to reject the imposition of abortion legislation on Northern Ireland. Abortion law is a devolved matter, and we are responsible for reflecting our society's values in this area, not Great Britain. You will be voting for life.
I shall leave you with the words of Heidi Crowter:
"It makes me feel like I shouldn't exist in this world."
Is that the message that the House and we as individuals want to send to our disabled community? Is that who we are? Heidi said:
"My life has as much value as anyone else’s. I am asking all MLAs ... to reject Westminster’s regulations – please don’t vote for more discrimination against people like me ... Please let Northern Ireland continue to be a country where disabled people are valued."
I implore you to support the motion.
The DUP motion today is an attempt to undermine any and all abortion provision in the North. We in Sinn Féin oppose the DUP's attack on women's reproductive rights, and we oppose the DUP's attempt to undermine our right to modern healthcare. The amendment that we have tabled would see a refining of the law to offer abortion services in the North mirrored with the services that we already have in the Twenty-six Counties.
Sinn Féin is not just a parliamentary party; we are a political movement, and we decide policy as a collective with membership having a say on every decision. That is democracy, and it is one of the things that first inspired me when I joined Sinn Féin.
It is the political activism that I have been involved in as a member that I am most proud of. As has been well documented, Sinn Féin activists have been on the ground delivering food parcels to those most in need over the course of the coronavirus pandemic. That was made possible, in most instances, by my comrade Minister Deirdre Hargey, who has been a fantastic advocate for communities since she took on her role in the Executive team just six short months ago. In the midst of this health crisis, we have been involved in our respective communities on local initiatives, from litter picks to sponsored walks, demonstrating leadership and lifting spirits in what has been a tough time for everyone. We continue to drive the little things that make big improvements in the places that we call home. That is what we do; it is activism. When the eighth amendment was repealed in the South just over two years ago, Sinn Féin activists were at the heart of the campaign. The movement that drove for repeal was a broad church. Sinn Féin members took their place and organised just as we would on any other campaign for social justice.
Abortion is an incredibly sensitive topic that has divided Irish society, and indeed societies across the world, for a long time. Many are uncomfortable with the issue. Only after years of dialogue and a willingness to understand the hurt and pain dealt with by generations of Irish women in crisis situations did we see the conditions whereby over 66% of voters in the Twenty-six Counties chose to repeal the eighth amendment from the Irish Constitution. This tells us that the public understands the need for safe and compassionate abortion services for women. Following on from this, our members in the Oireachtas Committee supported the recommendations of the clinicians and implemented the current abortion legislation in the Twenty-six. Sinn Féin supports abortion in instances of fatal foetal abnormalities, for victims of sexual crime and for anyone whose life or health, including their mental health, is in danger. Our party policy states that any gestational time limit should be set according to the advice of medical practitioners, which is what guided the legislation in the Twenty-six Counties. Sinn Féin's amendment today is merely an expression of that party policy.
In the lead-up to the referendum, I canvassed in Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal and spoke to people on doorsteps about how they would be voting. Indeed, since the change to our party policy at an Ard Fheis preceding the referendum, I have had many conversations with voters, former voters and potential voters about the issue of abortion. As a representative from a political party, I have been lobbied by and engaged with people on all sides of the argument. It is an incredibly sensitive and emotive topic, and none of us knows what any other person has lived through or the experiences that they have had that have shaped the position that they hold. To simply dismiss people who are uncomfortable with the legalisation of termination as backwards or regressive is not helpful. This debate requires sensitivity, empathy and respect. Ultimately, it is about healthcare.
The past is shameful enough and must be left in the past. Generations of pregnant Irish women and girls were treated with disdain for the crime of being pregnant and shunned even in their own homes, villages and towns. Young girls were abandoned by their families and sent away to Magdalene laundries in a whirlwind of secrecy and shame. Mass graves containing the remains of unnamed babies demonstrate the regard in which life was held by some in the Church. Women who could afford it were exploited by illegal abortionists in backstreet rooms masquerading as clinics, and a blind eye was turned to their plight so as not to upset appearances.
There is not a family in Ireland that this has not touched. It is only when a person finds themselves in a position of desperation that they know what they would do. That people in crisis situations here are still not able to receive treatment at home is not good enough. We, in Sinn Féin, would have liked to see abortion services delivered across Ireland by legislators here in Ireland. For us not to have been able to do that is a shame but, when a right is delayed, it is denied. It is for this reason that we supported the regulations that came into force in the North at the end of March. We welcomed the decriminalisation of women. People in already difficult circumstances were being punished, which added untold trauma to the lives of thousands of women who lived in fear of being found out for what they had done.
I wrote to the Minister of Health asking that the regulations as set out by the British Government are implemented and properly funded by the Department of Health locally, so as to see a fully commissioned service across all five healthcare trusts here. The Health Minister has abdicated his responsibilities on this issue, failing to give clear direction to the health trusts that adheres to the law. That leaves women in limbo. Sinn Féin wants to see an end to that. We want to see a proper, safe, legal service for anyone in crisis, whatever their story. We also acknowledge the work of disability campaigners, such as Heidi Crowter.
Sinn Féin wants to see a fair and just society. We want to see an end to all injustices, both deliberate, state-led, institutionalised discrimination, of the kind which is being talked about at the minute worldwide, and the societal prejudices that are held by people who think that they are doing nothing wrong. It is only when that is called out that the legitimisation of such views is halted, and Sinn Féin will continue to do that.
Before the Member finishes her party political broadcast, and might I remind her that this is not all about Sinn Féin, would she have time to give any thought to the rights of the innocent in the womb, who are denied the most basic right of all, which is the right to live? Does she have any thought for them?
I thank the Member for his comment. I am a Sinn Féin representative, and, as such, I speak for Sinn Féin.
To serve disabled people properly, we need to build infrastructure that is totally accessible. We need to have inclusivity to properly service section 75 obligations across all public-sector bodies and to raise awareness of the issues that face less-able people in their daily life.
Sinn Féin does not believe that a non-fatal foetal abnormality is an appropriate criterion for an abortion. Our party position, mandated by our party membership, has a modern and compassionate approach to healthcare at its core. That is why we are opposed to the DUP motion. We do not support the DUP's cynical attempt to attack the entire body of human rights-compliant healthcare for women. We are not in favour of blocking the ability of people in crisis to make the decision that they feel is best for them just because other people are uncomfortable with it. The motion would undermine the regulations in totality, by stealth, and Sinn Féin is completely opposed to that. It is 2020, and women here must be afforded modern healthcare in this area, as a right. There can be no further delays. We have waited long enough. I urge Members to support the amendment.
Before I call the next Member to speak, I remind Members that the Business Committee determined that this is a time-limited debate and set the limit of time for the debate. Clearly, there is considerable interest in this debate, but, clearly, as a result of the guidance that has been given to me, I will not be able to call everyone.
In accordance with Standing Order 17(4), the Business Committee has agreed a format for Members to be called to speak that reflects party balance, but, further to that, Speakers can use some discretion when determining who to call. However, in doing so, we must have due regard not only to the balance of opinion and the number of Members who have indicated a desire to speak but to party strengths.
Members, I ask you all to be realistic about how often you can expect to be called. I cannot call everyone who wishes to be called.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the motion. It provides me and many of my party colleagues, who have a free vote and are not excluded from their party should they differ from the party line, to give voice to and reflect the sincerely held views of the many thousands of constituents who are opposed to abortion and the current legislative proposals by the British Government. I recognise the absolute responsibility on all Members who speak to ensure that their contributions are respectful of the opposing views of others.
This debate is a very emotive one, made more powerful by the intervention of a young lady, Heidi Crowter, who has Down's syndrome. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to speak to her and her mother, Liz, via Zoom, last night. Heidi shared with us her plans for her wedding, which is due to be held next week, but the celebrations for her wedding may have to be postponed due the current COVID-19 restrictions. She has, very sensibly, alternative plans in place. I am sure that you will join me in wishing her and her fiancé, James, a long and happy life together.
This debate provides an opportunity to send a strong message to those in Westminster who seek to put in place regulations in Northern Ireland that offer abortion with no gestational limits for children with disabilities. What does that say about the value that is placed on the life of a person who is born with a disability? It is almost beyond belief that abortion would be allowed up to full term.
The amendment at Westminster that gave rise to this debate was inappropriately attached to a technical Bill that dealt with the postponement of Assembly elections. Many argued that the amendment was clearly outside the scope of the Bill, and all MPs from Northern Ireland who were in attendance voted against it. People here were prevented from having their say on the abortion regulations. Indeed, some, including my good friend and former Member Alban Maginness, have pointed out that that intervention has weakened devolution and the responsibility of the Assembly to address our social and economic problems, no matter how intractable they are. That is one of the reasons why I can’t support the Sinn Féin amendment. I fail to understand why a so-called republican party supports a British Government determining on the right to life of unborn Irish children. It is a long way from the proclamation of 1916, which promised to cherish all the children of the nation equally.
My colleague Justin McNulty argues that by removing the words, "rejects the imposition of abortion legislation", from the motion, Sinn Féin’s amendment gives cover to an overreaching British Government that chose to override the democratic wishes of people in this part of Ireland. I cannot support the amendment for that and other reasons.
I am very conscious of the public interest in this debate and the arguments from both sides, but especially from people with disabilities who live within our families and communities. Very many people with a disability live independently and have rich and fulfilling lives, but that is not the reality for all. Therefore, as a society, it is not enough for us to pay lip service to families and carers who struggle to cope with their caring responsibilities. We must invest in support and respite services to enable individuals to live as fulfilling a life as possible. Diversity and inclusion should be celebrated.
I support the motion and conclude by referring to Heidi, who tells us that we are "amazing just the way we are".
I take part in this debate with a sense of bewilderment and irony. Over the past three months, the country has listened to accounts of individuals who have been striving to live, and our medical profession has been doing all in its power to save lives in the face of COVID. Yet, we are here to reject discriminatory abortion legislation that extends to all non-fatal disabilities.
As a result of both Houses of Parliament supporting a change in the law on abortion in Northern Ireland and ignoring the rights of the unborn child, one finds oneself having to defend those rights; the rights of the baby in the womb. We are debating the imposition of abortion legislation that treats children in the womb with non-fatal disabilities differently from those who do not have a disability. Is that not discrimination? Everyone has a right to life; those who are disabled and those who are not must be treated and valued equally. All life is sacred.
Not one of us in this Chamber is perfect: we are either too tall or too short, too small or too large. The list is endless, yet, because of this new legislation, the helpless in the womb, because of their imperfections, such as a cleft palate, a club foot or Down's syndrome, may have their lives terminated on the basis of their non-fatal impairment. How diabolical.
Last year, I had the pleasure of being invited by a young man with Down's syndrome to watch him participate in the qualifying rounds for the Special Olympics football team. What a joy it was for his parents and me. How wonderful it was to see him taking part in a team sport, passing the ball, listening to the pep talk at half-time and going on to score the winning goal. How proud were his parents, like the other parents who had come to stand on the sidelines to encourage and cheer on their sons? That same young man had been away from his parents for a week, training for his matches, leading a life in many ways similar to those of our household names who represent their country at sporting events. When not playing sport, he was helping out on the family farm. Who can say that that young man was not leading a fulfilling, independent life? How could that young person be denied his opportunity? A young lady whom I know who also has Down's syndrome leads a full and busy life helping in the kitchen of her local school, preparing and serving lunches, the very school where she was once a pupil.
Both of those young people are evidence of how important their individual roles in society are, no matter how minor or major their limitations. Think of how much they have enriched the lives of their parents, siblings and wider family and how much society has learned and gained from them. Yes, having a disabled baby may be a challenge, but who has not been challenged by a baby, be it restlessness at night due to colic or just not wanting to sleep? How many of us are not challenged by our children's behaviour, whether they are able-bodied or not?
Before I conclude, it is important to make the point that we have to remember the health workers who work with these people. They may have an issue of conscience with the law. Finally, it is important to remember that one cannot tolerate and promote disabled babies having less protection in law than babies who are not disabled. All humans should be valued and protected equally. Therefore, I welcome the intervention of disability campaigner Heidi Crowter and support the motion.
On Thursday evenings, we all go out at 8:00 pm to clap for our medical workforce, as we value their clinical credentials, their professional judgement and the care and compassion that they show to COVID-19 patients. Yet, what the motion and the amendment suggest is that we are not to value their clinical credentials, their professional judgement and the care and compassion that they show to pregnant women on a Friday morning. I trust our registered medical professionals, and I trust women.
By week 20, when we get the big scan and women have thought of names and chosen prams etc, receiving important news about complexities with your pregnancy would floor any one of us. If any MLA thinks that a woman would make a choice to terminate a late pregnancy without days of completely fretting and agonising through every aspect of the rest of the pregnancy and beyond, they, in my opinion, are viewing those women with disrespect and a lack of empathy. The DUP, in bringing this non-binding motion, and Sinn Féin, in proposing the amendment, are playing politics by trying to imply that any MLA who does not support them does not care about children born with a disability. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The motion refers to those who live with Down's syndrome. My aunt Margaret, who is now, sadly, passed, lived with Down's syndrome. She passed away in her 50s and was a very much-loved and central member of my mother's family circle. So, if my daughter, for example, came to me with such a diagnosis during a pregnancy, of course I would support her. However, the regulations are not about me and my family; they are about the unknown women whose personal circumstances I know nothing about. The regulations are not about compelling a woman to terminate a pregnancy; they are about providing that healthcare option in our country.
Last year, when the Northern Ireland Office engaged with political parties and other stakeholders, they made it clear that they were looking at abortion laws and regulations across the UK, Ireland and western Europe in order to learn from their experiences. I have no doubt, therefore, that the NIO officials considered the Health Act 2018 in the Republic of Ireland, which restricts foetal anomaly-related abortions to those deemed fatal. That means that medical professionals do not feel comfortable with such ambiguous terminology in the regulations, so women from the South have had to continue to travel to England to access their healthcare. That Act is not preventing abortion; they just continue to export the problem. As a legislator in the Assembly, I would hate to see any woman forced to make such a lonely and heartbreaking journey.
Parts 3 to 7 of the regulations spell out clearly the grounds for abortion, with particular reference to the role of the two registered medical professionals. When the Health Minister has been asked about how that works in practice through Assembly questions for written answer, he has replied:
"My Department has made it clear to medical professionals that abortion is now legal and they should assess on a case by case basis whether a woman’s individual circumstances meet the grounds for a termination of pregnancy. This would include surgical abortion where this is clinically necessary."
He did not use the words "desirable" or "capricious": he used "clinically necessary".
Professional accountability mechanisms are built into the regulations. They give the General Medical Council and the Nursing and Midwifery Council powers to investigate whether the fitness to practise of a registered medical professional is impaired, and the governance and transparency mechanisms are built in, with a requirement on the registered medical professionals to report every termination to the Chief Medical Officer.
The truth is that procuring an abortion is never an easy decision for a woman, whether it is a crisis pregnancy for which she seeks an early medical abortion or when she receives news of a severe foetal impairment or a fatal foetal abnormality. As a compassionate society, we must do all that we can to support her, not judge or vilify her.
I speak on an issue that is one of the most crucial of our lifetime: the sanctity of life. It is an issue that transcends traditional political and community lines and one that was cruelly taken from us and exploited by English MPs at a time of Westminster political chaos. Since I took my place in the House, I have sought to fight for the defenceless, the weak and the innocent. Surely, others in the House have been moved by the incredible crusade of Heidi Crowter, a young lady with Down's syndrome who is determined to fight for justice and equality. Moving as Heidi's story is, it does not stand in isolation. Many homes in Northern Ireland are filled with laughter, joy and happiness by those born with disabilities. Who are those disabled people? They are brothers and sisters, aunties and uncles, nieces and nephews, children and grandchildren. They are real people. Who are we to say that their life is worth less?
I stand saddened and bewildered that, at a time when communities, Governments and the field of medicine around the world have been mobilised to save the lives of the most vulnerable, we are debating an issue that, if left unopposed, would strip those innocent, preborn babies of the most basic right of all: the right to life. Regulation 7 is a transparent expression of discrimination. It means giving non-disabled viable babies in the womb greater legal protection than disabled viable babies in the womb. That would, of course, be discriminatory. The legal difference of treatment that we are talking about here is immense, meaning that, on the one hand, the life is protected, while, on the other, far from offering protection, the state will happily acquiesce in the termination of viable disabled human beings. That is no ordinary discrimination: that is fatal discrimination.
Is it any wonder that Heidi Crowter has said, as a lady with Down's Syndrome, that the law makes her sad and cry? It would make me sad and cry if I had Down's Syndrome. To be honest with you, it makes me sad and cry even though I do not. I salute Heidi and her boldness in going to the courts to try to get this discriminatory law struck down. I want the Assembly to compassionately respond and say, "Not in our name".
I do not believe that any part of the United Kingdom has been subject to worse constitutional abuses in modern times than Northern Ireland has in the development of the abortion regulations. Regardless of what we may or may not think of their content, no self-respecting Member of the House should accept them because of the way in which they have been developed. Abortion is a devolved matter. The amendment that sought to change Northern Ireland's abortion laws in spite of this was, according to the Commons Clerk, out of scope and got through only because of the pressure of a large number of signatures by MPs from outside Northern Ireland.
Absolutely, and it is for those very reasons that the regulations cannot be cherry-picked. That is why we cannot support the Sinn Féin amendment. They rise together or fall together.
Let us look at what happened. Northern Ireland MPs were ignored on what was a Northern Ireland-only issue. There was a 17-minute debate on a matter of life and death and an NIO consultation where the proposals were overwhelmingly opposed by 79% of submissions. The essence of constitutional democracy is not simply majoritarianism; it is majoritarianism subject to rules. As long as the abortion regulations exist, they openly mock the people of Northern Ireland and their right to the dignity of constitutional due process. The litany of constitutional offences that has informed the way that Westminster and Whitehall have handled the issue since last July is now massively compounded by the fact that, despite the restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly, Her Majesty's Government instead propose to ask Westminster to vote to pass legislation on a devolved matter. We must call on the Government to respect devolution, to abandon the regulations and to repeal section 9. Quite simply, the lives of our unborn depend on it.
The motion tabled by the DUP is a transparent attempt to undermine the progress made to date and deny women reproductive rights. The legislative framework on abortion in the North prior to last October failed women. Based on archaic legislation from 1861, it criminalised those accessing abortion and forced people to travel for healthcare or access medication online with the fear of prosecution if anything went wrong. It disproportionately impacted on those from poorer socio-economic backgrounds and caused additional stress and trauma to so many people.
Like many others, I campaigned for the repeal of the eighth amendment and for the long overdue change in the law in the North. The fact that Westminster had to legislate is regrettable, but it was necessary because of the failure of the DUP and others to uphold human rights obligations. My preference and that of my party would have been for the Assembly to legislate for those who we represent. However, we now have the legislative framework that entitles women to access abortion services, and the Health Minister should implement the regulations and commission the services as a matter of urgency. I commend all of those who campaigned for many years to bring about the change and those who continue to campaign for the right of women to access modern and compassionate healthcare.
We should not conflate issues in what is already an emotive debate for many people. I doubt that anyone here does not agree that we must support and campaign for the rights of persons with disabilities and for proper access to support and services for all those with additional needs.
We must support those who choose to continue with a pregnancy with a diagnosis of foetal abnormality and put in place adequate perinatal healthcare services. We must not, however, stigmatise any individual who makes the difficult decision to terminate a pregnancy. Whatever one's personal view on the issue, we, as legislators, have a duty to ensure that there is provision of modern healthcare for all citizens, including local access to abortion services.
What kind of society do we want to live in? That is the fundamental question. My view is that how we treat those with disabilities and how we shape society for them goes a long way to determining the answer. At the heart of the matter before us today is this question: are those with a disability equal citizens? Is the remarkable and inspiring Heidi Crowter an equal citizen to every MLA in the House?
The stance that the House takes on regulation 7(1)(b) and regulation 13 in the Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2020 is a test for all of us who believe in equality. In a genuinely humane society, it would be entirely wrong to allow the termination of any viable human being, whether they have a disability or not. What is particularly appalling about this legislation from a disability perspective is that it compounds the offence by stating that it would be wrong to terminate another viable human being of exactly the same age because they do not have Down's syndrome or another non-fatal disability. That sends out a message, loud and clear, that human beings with Down's syndrome or other non-fatal disabilities are worthy of less protection in law because they are less worthwhile and less valuable.
That is the ethic of a eugenic society that I, for one, have no desire to be a part of. In England and Wales, in cases in which women received a diagnosis before birth that their child had Down's syndrome, the abortion rate between 2015 and 2017 was a staggering 85·1%. I have been disturbed by some of the arguments that have been advanced in favour of allowing abortion upon the diagnosis of Down's syndrome from the point of viability until birth. Those arguing refuse to engage with the fact that we are talking about a viable human being and focus just on what, they say, is the right of the woman to abort in those circumstances.
There is sometimes an attempt to give legitimacy to the notion that we should sanction disability discrimination in abortion legislation because of the health of the mother. That simply will not do. If one prohibits discriminatory abortion for disability, it does not change the fact that it is still legal to abort up until birth if the life of the mother is in danger. That has always been legal in Northern Ireland, although if it is possible to save the mother's life by removing the child in a way that keeps the child alive as well, that clearly must be striven for. Others have simply tried to change the subject by saying, "Why don't they focus more on providing support for our mothers and children with non-fatal disabilities?".
I will address the amendment standing in the name of Sinn Féin MLAs. First, I am pleased that Sinn Féin is clear that it cannot support abortion on the basis of non-fatal disability up until birth, but its amendment falls short, as it fails to acknowledge the concerns over other aspects of the regulations and the constitutional violation against the devolved settlement by imposing Westminster rule on the people of Northern Ireland in this area. I do not believe, because of the extraordinary manner in which they have been developed, that any self-respecting person in Northern Ireland should accept the regulations.
Moreover, devolution has now been restored. We are quite capable of developing our own legislation. Rather than ask the Westminster Parliament to vote for regulations, the next step that the UK Government should take is to ask Westminster to recognise that devolution has now been restored for nearly five months and that it is time for it to repeal section 9, which has now been overtaken by events.
As the mover of the amendment that became section 9 said at the time:
"if it was not for the fact that we do not have an Assembly, this would absolutely not be the right way forward, but we do not have an Assembly and we will not have one any time soon."
That statement was made on 9 July 2019. We now have an Assembly, and Westminster has still not voted on a new abortion law for Northern Ireland, so now is absolutely not the right time for such a vote. Instead, the Government should ask Parliament to recognise the restoration of the Assembly by repealing section 9, and let the business of defining our own abortion law take place. Thank you.
Let me start by stating that I am opposed to this motion. It clearly aims to rollback elements of the progress on rights and access to appropriate medical care for women in our society, who should be treated with respect and compassion. I wish to speak in support of the amendment.
Abortion is a sensitive and emotive issue for many people, but change is clearly needed. Before being repealed on 22 October, women who found themselves in the difficult position of seeking an abortion were criminalised under section 58 and 59 of Westminster's Offences Against the Person Act. In order to access abortion services, women had to either travel overseas, which delayed the termination and added expense and stress, or purchase abortion pills without proper medical advice and supervision. We cannot leave women to deal with these situations without support and appropriate healthcare; nor can we continue to turn a blind eye to the plight of those who are struggling with issues arising from rape and fatal foetal abnormality.
There are no perfect or easy solutions here. However, as legislators, we must do our utmost to address these issues as best we can. The Health Committee has written to the Minister of Health to urge him to provide appropriate abortion services for women, particularly in the light of the additional complications that have arisen as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. At this time, he has a duty to ensure that services are provided in a safe and accessible way.
Sinn Féin's preference was for the Assembly to introduce legislation on safe and compassionate abortion services for the North of Ireland, so that women on the entire island will have the services that they deserve. In the South, legislation was developed following detailed consideration and discussion via a citizens assembly, and was strongly ratified by those living in the 26 counties via a referendum.
Sinn Féin believes that abortion should be available where a woman's life, health or mental health is at risk, in cases of fatal foetal abnormality and in cases of rape or sexual abuse. Sinn Féin believes that abortion without specific indication should be available through a GP-led service in a clinical context as determined by law and licensing practice for a limited gestational period. We support the joint Oireachtas Committee finding that it is not possible to legislate for abortion in the case of rape in a compassionate way. That is reflected in 'A new legal framework for abortion services in Northern Ireland', which says:
"that this provision is proportionate and appropriate in order to avoid building a system that could lead to further trauma for victims of rape or incest or act as a barrier to access for victims of sexual crime."
However, Sinn Féin does not support CEDAW's recommendations to provide abortion in the case of severe foetal impairment such as Down's syndrome. Our amendment welcomes the important intervention by disability campaigner Heidi Crowter, who has been referred to today, and rejects the specific legislative provision in the abortion legislation that goes beyond fatal foetal abnormalities to include non-fatal disabilities such as Down's syndrome. I support the amendment.
I will speak, extremely briefly, on the motion and the amendment. First, this is an extraordinarily difficult and complicated subject. It is easy to portray this as a completely black and white question, but it is not. As multiple Members have mentioned, abortion is an extraordinarily sensitive subject. It divides people and families. It can divide good-willed people who are in an honest and ethical disagreement about these very profound issues.
As my colleague Dolores Kelly outlined, my party enables a conscience vote on this issue, which recognises that it is extraordinarily sensitive. Before I move to the substance of the motion and the amendment, I want to say very clearly that I believe that it is possible for good-willed, moral and ethical people to take different views on this subject.
Moving on to the substance of the motion, I will not support the DUP motion this evening. A few weeks ago, I said in the Chamber that I believed that it was a positive step forward in healthcare for woman in Northern Ireland that provision had been made to, in a sense, bring us closer to provision in the rest of the UK and, indeed, the rest of Ireland. As a legislator, which I now am, key for me in coming to this practical decision, while thinking through all the moral and ethical implications, was not to try to come to a catch-all position for everyone. As a legislator, is it my job to limit the options that are available to women who are in extraordinary distress? Although I may have reservations about specific instances and specific issues, it really is not for me, in every circumstance, to say to women in extreme distress that they cannot access healthcare.
I found it difficult to hear testimony from people with disabilities who expressed views on this. None of us can pretend that this stuff is easy. There is a range of views in the disabled community. It is also true that there is a range of other ways in which we as a society and as a state can do better by disabled people. I want to say, as others said, that in no way are my views on abortion care a reflection of my views on the value of disabled people. I will not support the motion, which, I believe, would start to take us back in terms of abortion care in Northern Ireland.
I think that it is legitimate for the motion to be debated. I do not think that the Northern Ireland Assembly should not be able to have this debate. In the debate on the previous item of business, I talked about the importance of the Assembly having its voice heard, and I completely accept that. Many in the Chamber, including some from my party, will take a different view from me. We are here now, and I respect your right to make your voice heard on this.
I will not support the DUP motion. I will not support the Sinn Féin amendment, in part because I am not entirely clear on what it is intended to do. I also think that it would contribute to a whittling away of rights. That said, it is important that people are able to debate these issues, and I respect the fact that we are able to debate them tonight in the Assembly. I hope that we can proceed with the debate in as respectful a way as possible.
As a member of the Ulster Unionist Party, this is for me, a matter of conscience, and I will speak personally.
For me, today's motion is not about the rights and wrongs of abortion. If it were, I fear that we would simply be rehearsing the very old and long-held positions that, in many ways, paved the way for the Westminster Government and the NIO to dream up such extreme and discriminatory measures, disregarding the vast majority of responses to the consultation on the proposed legislation and regulations.
In my mind, the motion and amendment are about our attitudes to equality and disability. I will go much further: almost all of us in the Chamber are engaged in politics because we are fuelled by the desire for justice, equality and humanity. Sometimes, depending on the setting of the story, that narrative becomes blurred, but not in this case. When elected to the Assembly in 2016, I established two new passions. One, as everyone in the House will know, is mental health. The other, born of my active membership of the relevant all-party groups (APGs), is learning disability and disability. I have learnt many things from participating in these forums. Perhaps the overriding theme common to these APGs is that of stigmatisation, discrimination and the ongoing battle for equality. I cannot overstate the conversations in which I have been involved with stakeholders of these groups. Those conversations demonstrated the real difficulties and barriers that people with a disability or learning disability still face here in Northern Ireland in 2020.
I have enjoyed every moment of learning more about disability and learning disability, having to challenge my perceptions and the myths about what a normal life is, what a life of fulfilment is and what really matters.
A number of years ago, at an event with Mencap in the Long Gallery, I had the absolute privilege of holding and nursing a two-year-old boy. His mum handed him to me, and I do not exaggerate when I say that, as he smiled into my face, I absolutely fell in love with him. I will not use his name, because I do not have the permission from his mum, but I can tell you, that young man, who has Down's syndrome, left an indelible mark on my heart.
In Lisburn, we are very proud of the work done by Stepping Stones. Since 1996, the team have striven with great passion and determination to offer support and value to people with learning difficulties and disabilities. All the trainees have a learning difficulty, many of them men and women with Down's syndrome. Recently, I called with their CEO at their new premises — Avenue 1 — for coffee and a snack. What struck me was the reception I got from the front-of-house waiter. I was shown to my seat, order taken and advice given on what was evidently a menu that he had contributed to. That young man with Down's syndrome showed me an attitude of hospitality and customer service sometimes missing in other settings.
At Christmas time, I look forward to getting an invitation. We all do. We love to get those invitations to carol and nativity services. In addition, the ones I look forward to most are the invites from Mencap and from Parkview Special School in Lisburn. To my great delight, two years ago, I got an invitation to the Glenveagh Special School nativity play. Even if you do not like Christmas, I suggest you seek out an opportunity to go to one of those nativity scenes.
There can be no suggestion but that, for many of these individuals and very special children, life can be a challenge and, for some, quite difficult.
<BR/>However, to see the joy, concentration and effort, the professionalism —
and often the mischievousness on their faces and of their actions — only reaffirms, if required, that every life is precious and that we must do all we can to empower, support and demonstrate to those children and pupils, that they are valued every bit as much as we value ourselves.
A number of disability champions are worthy of mention. However, for the purpose of this debate, there is only one that I will name, as many of you have done so far, and that is Heidi Crowter. I spent 40 minutes on a Zoom call on Saturday morning with Heidi, Paul, Joanne and myself, I can safely say that, if I needed any validation to support the motion, I got it in spades.
The sad reality remains that Heidi has to speak on an issue of legislation and regulation which seeks to devalue the person she is.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and thank you for the intervention. Indeed, as has been pointed out by Dolores Kelly, a moment spent talking to Heidi reaffirms the heart that there is. There are champions out there, working in really challenging circumstances.
As I said, Heidi has Down's syndrome, and she is talking about a regulation that speaks about her. Put simply, regulation 7(1)(b) allows abortion for serious foetal "impairment":
"Where there is a substantial risk that if born the child"
— that is the word used in the regulation —
"would suffer from such physical or mental impairment as to be seriously disabled."
Imagine having to have a face-to-face discussion with someone who was born with what, in England and Wales, is, for the purpose of abortion legislation, deemed, "a serious foetal impairment."
That same person, Heidi, will soon be 24, and, as we have heard, she is going to be married. She is a disability champion. She will soon marry her fiancé. Could any of you seriously sit face-to-face with Heidi and say, "You are not equal"?
Today, we have an opportunity to set aside —
— the wider abortion debate, and insist that this legislation is challenged and changed. I say to Heidi, and others who have Down's syndrome and other non-fatal disabilities that, even as an unborn baby, you are equal, you are valued and you are seen.
Alliance Party policy on abortion is a matter of individual conscience, therefore, I speak in a personal capacity. I also say, at the outset, that it would enrich the debate — I say this sincerely — if the DUP were able to speak to the work of the Education Minister to help pupils with disabilities at this time.
I have spoken on this serious matter of abortion in the Assembly on a number of occasions. I have done my best to engage with health professionals and families affected by it and with widely different views on it. In February 2016, over four years ago, in part because of that engagement, I voted in favour of legislative reform, proposed by our colleagues Trevor Lunn MLA and Stewart Dickson MLA, for abortion on the grounds of fatal foetal abnormality, legislative provision that the courts have since required of this jurisdiction. <BR/>I acknowledge that there are, however, many people who support the inclusion of severe foetal abnormality as grounds for abortion in legislation due to concern that its omission could limit access to termination in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, and I will do my best to engage with those concerns in my role.
There are, however, many people in the Assembly and in Northern Ireland who cannot support legislative provision for abortion on the grounds of serious disability. Indeed, the DUP and Sinn Féin appear to agree on that matter, but somehow have conspired to disagree in the debate today, which appears to be a real missed opportunity. As far as I can see, the text of the DUP motion rejects abortion legislation that extends to all non-fatal disabilities, and the same provision is contained in the amendment. It is a real shame and a disappointment that some degree of agreement was not reached in that regard.
I am not able to support legislative provision for abortion on what I believe are ill-defined grounds of severe foetal abnormality, particularly if it provides for abortion on the grounds of serious physical or mental disability. My assessment of the amendment and the motion is that someone who is unable to support abortion on the grounds of non-fatal disabilities ought to vote in favour of the amendment and the motion. As far as I can see, they oppose abortion on the grounds of non-fatal disability, and I will, therefore, vote for the amendment and the motion on those grounds on this occasion.
It must be acknowledged, however, that neither the amendment nor the motion do anything to change what is a legal duty on the UK Government to implement CEDAW recommendations on abortion, which include the grounds of severe foetal abnormality. I had hoped that the UK legislation would have accepted fatal foetal abnormality to satisfy the CEDAW requirement, but that does not appear to be the case at this stage. It is also an inescapable fact that the UK abortion legislation exists because the Northern Ireland Executive did not. I do not know if Northern Ireland legislation can amend primary UK legislation, but, if people are serious about delivering fit-for-purpose abortion legislation in Northern Ireland, a three-year Executive hiatus and private Member's motions will not achieve that.
I will continue to do my best to engage respectfully, openly and inclusively on the serious matter of abortion legislation with anyone who gives me the opportunity to do so.
I am one of very many who are very thankful to the Westminster MPs, and to Stella Creasy in particular, for changing our laws. Instead of debating why Northern Ireland is still without regulations, we are debating laws that we cannot change.
Reducing an abnormality clause to permit only fatal abnormalities can, as shown by the example in the Republic of Ireland, actually limit fatal diagnoses due to the unattainable certainty required. The motion and the amendment would compel medics to make impossible distinctions between fatal and non-fatal abnormalities, limiting access to abortion healthcare. If the motion and amendment were enforced, it would mean that women and girls would be forced to continue to travel to England and beyond, just as they were before the legislation changed. A similar clause in the Irish Republic has resulted in women and girls whose pregnancies are diagnosed with severe and life-threatening abnormalities continuing to travel overseas to access abortion, just as if the law had never changed.
I am stunned at the Sinn Féin amendment. I am stunned at the forked-tongue language. The amendment would force women to continue to rely on healthcare in England, and that was not Sinn Féin's election message, which was about equality for all and compassionate healthcare. This is what a clawback of women's rights looks like, this is what political opportunism looks like and this is what populism looks like.
It is ironic for the DUP to claim that it is morally unjustifiable to use a foetus as a political bargaining chip when the same DUP Members write to their constituents and request a letter-writing campaign to promote a change in legislation. But at least the DUP is consistent in its disdain for women, their bodies and their choices. The motion and amendment are not compliant with CEDAW, and our law states that we need to be.
The CEDAW report recommends that:
"abortion on the ground of severe foetal impairment be available to facilitate reproductive choice and autonomy, States parties are obligated to ensure that women's decisions to terminate pregnancies on this ground do not perpetuate stereotypes towards persons with disabilities. Such measures should include the provision of appropriate social and financial support for women who choose to carry such pregnancies to term."
We should be discussing significant increases in funding to enable disabled people, rather than trying to broadly restrict rights for women in Northern Ireland. The Green Party will not support the start of a clawback.
Disabled Women Ireland has stated:
"social and financial support to disabled people and their parents is the strongest way to deal with concerns for disability rights. Recognising the full extent of disabled people’s rights from infancy to old age – to education, to early childhood support, to personal assistance – will make meaningful changes to the quality of disabled people’s everyday lives. Restrictions on abortion will only place further restrictions on the reproductive rights and freedoms of people with disabilities."
The motion and the amendment would disproportionately harm disabled women whose pregnancies are diagnosed with a foetal anomaly and contravene the state's obligations under the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Mr Gildernew has already spoken in the debate. I will quote something that he said recently:
"women in the north must be able to access modern and compassionate healthcare services that have been legislated for... Sinn Féin welcomes the decriminalisation of women and the legalisation of modern health care services for women in the north. This means that women in crisis will now have the benefit of local medical services, advice and support."
However, the amendment will mean that women from Northern Ireland will still have to travel to access abortion healthcare. That is not my understanding of "local". Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill has stated:
"Sinn Fein is opposed to the extension of Britain’s 1967 Act to the north but British legislation which criminalises women who have an abortion should be repealed immediately."
Well, that has been done. What the motion and the amendment mean is that, although Sinn Féin might not want British legislation, it is happy to continue to export Irish and Northern Irish women to Britain for healthcare. That is simple hypocrisy in my book. What happened to the platitudes about trusting women —
First, I would like to say a few words about Heidi Crowter. Heidi really is a remarkable young woman. I get goosebumps when I see her and other young women like her speaking up for what they believe in. I have not met Heidi — I would really like to — but, from what I see and hear, I know that her challenges have not limited her; rather, she takes value from those challenges to enable and strengthen her. We could learn so much from that spirit. Heidi's intervention is important because she represents an informed and experienced voice that is affected by the debate. Like other MLAs, I have received significant correspondence from constituents and others expressing their view on the issue. I appreciate the time that they have taken to contact me not just in the past week but in the time since the legislation was passed at Westminster.
I rise not to support the motion or the amendment for a number of reasons that, I hope, I have time to outline. I appreciate the opportunity that the proponents of the motion have given the House to discuss the issue. We are a devolved region of the United Kingdom with statutory responsibility for health and justice issues, and it should have been for Members of this House to progress the legislation and subsequent regulations. I sought to do that when I was Minister of Justice in a previous mandate, alongside the then Health Minister, in respect of fatal foetal abnormalities. I genuinely believe that that would have happened had the Executive not collapsed. At the time, I was criticised for sitting on a report. I did not; I was giving my Executive colleagues time to consider it. If they had no intention of supporting any change, they would have rejected it from the outset. They did not.
I have no doubt that the intention behind the motion is to give its proponents an opportunity to express and put on record their partisan position on abortion generally, subsequent to legislation that was passed in Westminster last year. I have no difficulty with that. I reiterate my earlier point: the issue should have been debated and progressed in this House. But it was not. It happened at Westminster, where the party that has moved the motion today had, at that time, the power there to stop it happening. If I overstate that power — I do not believe that I do — I would really welcome an intervention from the DUP to explain why they did not try to stop it at that point, especially considering the action that they have taken today and took in October. Yes, you voted against it, but you had the ear of Downing Street and could have done much more. I do not think that you did.
I appreciate the Member giving way. Let me assure the Member that, at every opportunity, the DUP, at its highest levels, engaged with the Prime Minister about not pursuing this course of action. The Member will know that this matter is a free vote, as it has for other parties, and there was an inability to whip Conservative MPs on it, so the vote was overwhelmingly passed in Parliament. Our MPs, as the Member indicated, voted against it, and we continued to seek to stop what has been happening. This motion is part of that ongoing campaign. I ask the Member to reflect on that, and I will make more comments and hope that she can come to a different position to what she has outlined.
Thank you. I appreciate that, but I still feel that you had power to do something more than vote against it and pay, I suppose, lip service to the fact that you did not support that motion.
The Member needs to understand that it was a free vote in the House of Commons and that the majority of Conservative MPs did not vote in favour of what went through the House. She will recall that, at that stage, there were a considerable number of others in the House. It was not like today, when they have a majority. Therefore, the House voted in a particular way. It did not really matter what the Prime Minister had to say about the matter; the matter went through the House on an amendment, as she will remember, tabled by the Labour Party. It is unfair of the Member to characterise it as this party not doing enough to stop the matter. Unlike other parties in the House, we have been consistently in favour of pro-life positions. It is very wrong of the Member to do that.
I thank the leader of the DUP for giving me that side of it. I disagree, but that is obviously something that we will have to agree to disagree on.
That said, I fully respect the varied opinion on the issue, and I genuinely welcome the discussion. I just do not like the choreography, which also extends to the amendment tabled by those on the other side of the House. It is easy to agree with decisions when you have relinquished responsibility to someone else, but, when you are called on it, please be honest.
Nonetheless, there are many opinions, and I have taken time to listen to all of them. It is clear to me that this is not a simple binary choice of pro-life versus pro-choice. It is not black and white; it is the greyest of greys. I remain deeply conflicted about abortion, and I am not even sure I entirely agree with the position that I am taking. It is a highly emotive issue, and my guide tends to be compassion for everyone involved. Our previous law and our leadership vacuum could not facilitate compassion for women, their partners, their families and the babies they carried, so the law needed to change.
When I initially read the motion, I was inclined to support it, because I have difficulty with the regulations, namely part 3, which enables termination up to birth in certain circumstances. I thought that the motion was referring to that. I reread the motion and found that it rejects all imposition of abortion legislation, including not only Down's syndrome but everything else —
It is important that I get a chance to speak, but it is a shame that I do not get the same time as others.
Today's debate about abortion has created confusion and outrage, and it is not difficult to see why. On the one hand, the Supreme Court declared that the restrictions on abortion at the heart of the DUP motion and the Sinn Féin amendment are a breach of human rights. The UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights deemed such restrictions as "gender-based violence" and "unconscionable" and said:
"It's inhuman, it's cruel and it's tantamount to torture in certain conditions."
When Westminster intervened to decriminalise abortion, the majority of people here welcomed it.
On the other hand, the two largest parties have now banded together to send out a clear message that abortion should be heavily restricted, despite the brutal experiences that that creates for women and pregnant people. There is confusion, too, around the basis for Sinn Féin's amendment, which seems to totally ignore its own policy on women's health and abortion and is wholly out of step with the pro-choice rhetoric that it used during the repeal referendum. Forcing women to travel for abortion is not pro-choice, nor is it humane.
Finally, there is confusion as to why this agenda is being pushed when the evidence shows that around the world, where abortion restrictions are lifted and it is treated as healthcare rather than a legal issue, the rates of later-term abortions actually fall. In Canada, there are no restrictions and no time limits, and the rate of abortions after 20 weeks is just 0·6%, three times less than the rate in Britain. Medical professionals, royal colleges, the UN, Amnesty and other rights-based organisations overwhelmingly endorse the removal of barriers to accessing abortion as best medical practice.
From the outset, I want to say that Sinn Féin will oppose the DUP motion, which is aimed at denying women access to their reproductive rights. I stand here as a member of the Health Committee to talk about an issue that relates to women's health, and I appreciate that we are discussing a very emotive and contentious issue, with very strongly held views on all sides of the debate. It is important that respect is shown to all views in this debate.
Sinn Féin has a very clear view on the issue of abortion, and I want to set out our position so that there is no ambiguity or misunderstanding about where we stand. Sinn Féin is an entirely democratic political party, and our policies on all issues are decided at our ard-fheiseanna on an annual basis by our party membership. Our party members clearly expressed a view at our ard-fheis in 2018 that previous legislation on abortion, North and South, was failing women on this island, and also that it was incompatible with human rights law.
Clearly, there is a mood out in society that is demanding changes to abortion law, and that same mood exists within Sinn Féin. That is not to say that we support the introduction of the British Abortion Act 1967 here in the North; we do not. Our position is clear and consistent. Sinn Féin supports the introduction of termination of pregnancy only in very clearly defined circumstances. Abortion should be available where a woman's life, health or mental health is at risk; in cases of fatal foetal abnormality; and in cases where pregnancy has occurred as a result of rape, incest or sexual abuse. We do not support abortion on grounds of non-fatal foetal abnormality. Our party policy on that issue is absolutely crystal clear. That is what our party members voted for, and it has nothing to do with populism or opportunism.
The motion proposed by the DUP today is a rejection of any legislation that would permit abortion here under any circumstances. Sinn Féin will not support that position; if our amendment falls, we will vote against the DUP motion.
No, I am not giving way.
Abortions have been taking place for many years — even centuries. Previously, most were backstreet abortions, with all the attendant health risks and dangers for the woman. More recently, women from here have had to make lonely and traumatic journeys across the water to access abortion, often incurring significant financial cost. More importantly, they frequently had to travel without the family support and emotional solidarity they would have had if they could access the same healthcare here at home. In this technological age, women and girls have been accessing abortion pills on the internet and taking them without medical supervision. That is an unacceptable situation, and that is where the DUP wants to bring us back to. They are entitled, of course, to do that. However, it is beneath contempt that they have cynically tried to manipulate emotions around Down's syndrome children in an attempt to undermine the right of women to modern and compassionate healthcare and to roll back the progress that we have seen belatedly on this issue. That is why Sinn Féin brought forward its amendment and why it is totally and absolutely opposed to the DUP motion.
I thank all Members for taking part in the debate. I thank those who have spoken in support of the motion and for the measured and respectful way that they have engaged in the debate. I thank Members who have indicated concerns, again, for the respectful way that have done that. Some of the language has been regrettable: "cynical exploitation" and "playing politics". That is not the case. The attack on Sinn Féin by Clare Bailey and Gerry Carroll is highly regrettable. Similarly, they used the same language against Sinn Féin that Sinn Féin used in respect of those who support the motion, and I think that is regrettable. We need to debate this in a very sensitive and measured way.
On non-fatal disability, Sinn Féin accepts that both lives matter. We accept that both lives matter in many more circumstances. Supporting both lives is vital.
It is important to acknowledge the contributions that Members made, and I thank them for that. I thank the Member for East Belfast Joanne Bunting for opening the debate and for her powerful contribution, and that of others. My appreciation is to Members who spoke in support of the motion, in particular Robbie Butler and Rosemary Barton. I thank Patsy McGlone and Dolores Kelly for their support and the approach that they have taken on this issue in advance of the debate today. That cross-party and cross-community approach is a demonstration of the shared values that we have.
This issue is not a DUP issue, it is an issue for all of us. For Assembly Members today, as in the past, when I worked with people such as Pat Ramsey, Alban Maginness, Danny Kennedy and indeed the late Seamus Close, it is something that we have common cause in and can work together on.
It is extraordinary that the UK Government should have included in these abortion regulations a provision that is years out of date and would be a regressive and backwards step in the campaign against discrimination and equality for people with disabilities. In 1995, we had the advent of the Disability Discrimination Act, and, in 2009, the UK signed up to and ratified the UN convention on the rights of persons with disabilities. Yet, here we are with a law that invites us to view viable human beings that have non-fatal disabilities as less deserving of the protection of the law than viable human beings of the same age who are not disabled. We are dealing with a law that lays the foundations for fatal discrimination. It is discrimination that says that someone's life can be ended because of their disability. Regulation 7(1)(b) and regulation 13 are, quite simply, extraordinary, and it will bring shame on the UK Government and Westminster if they approve them later this month.
It is enough to completely devastate any person with a non-fatal disability, such as Heidi Crowter, or anyone who has such a person in their family. No one can spend time with Heidi, or anyone with Down's syndrome, and feel that that would be acceptable.
I had the pleasure, as colleagues have said, of speaking with Heidi, a remarkable woman who celebrates her birthday on 4 July, Independence Day. There she is, campaigning for her equality of treatment and for freedom for people like her, who have the chance of being born with Down's syndrome. Her life has been one full of joy and happiness and she is due to get married later this month to James. When we listen to Heidi speaking of being deeply hurt and offended by this legislation, that she is viewed as being less valued than other people, that should make all of us moved with compassion and compelled to take action.
Many of us will know people in those circumstances. The oldest person in the UK and Ireland with Down's syndrome, George, celebrated his 76th birthday yesterday. His family gave their support to this motion, saying, "We love our wee brother. He has brought us so much love and joy. He has had a great life". My great-uncle, my father's Uncle Samuel, had Down's syndrome. He lived for 57 years and he had a love for animals. My father speaks about the tremendous work ethic that he had on the farm and what joy he brought to that family. I never had the opportunity to meet him. The idea that Down's syndrome is some huge problem that should be addressed by abortion is chilling, and it suggests a complete lack of interest in how people with Down's syndrome and their families see the world.
The problems with regulations 7 and 13, however, do not pertain just to what they do but to the way in which they were developed. The story of these regulations is a litany of constitutional abuses that no self-respecting democracy should ever countenance. The regulations are the result of a vote to change abortion law in Northern Ireland in which the votes of actual MPs who represent the people of Northern Ireland were silenced by the votes of other MPs, none of whom represent this place. The legislation, pushed through via an amendment to an unrelated Bill that was subject to accelerated procedure, should never have been the case. The original amendment, tabled and commended by Clare Bailey in the name of Stella Creasy, was so incoherent that, rather than amending it, the House of Lords totally rewrote it. Then, the entire new provision was sent back to MPs, and they had only 17 minutes' worth of a fragmented debate, which took place around Brexit, and they passed a vote, but not specifically on that amendment from the House of Lords, which was grouped with wider amendments. I will give way to Mr Lunn.
I thank the Member for giving way. He could perhaps help me to decide which way to vote on the DUP motion if he would explain what the DUP's position is here. Is the intention, as I gathered from Mrs Bunting's excellent speech, to concentrate on the one clause, 7(1)(b), to try to get that changed, or is it what Mrs Cameron appeared to let out of the bag, which is, frankly, a much wider discussion about the abortion Act in total? If he could clarify that for me, it would help a lot.
I will. I am going to address that point as I conclude. The Member does raise a valid point, and I can understand why he makes it.
Up until that point, it was Parliament that had treated Northern Ireland badly, but from here on in, the Conservative Government made matters worse. In the first instance, they had a consultation on the regulations that was much shorter than the usual 12 weeks, especially on controversial topics; it lasted six weeks, and only four of those days were outside of a general election campaign. In the second instance, they completely ignored the fact that 79% of respondents said, "Please, do not do this". Then, the Secretary of State proceeded to develop regulations in a way that undermined devolution to a greater extent than Parliament actually required. That point has been spelt out in a legal opinion by one of our leading constitutional lawyers, David Scoffield QC.
It would have been bad enough had the Secretary of State compounded the undermining of devolution in a context where the Assembly was suspended, but he continued with that approach even after the restoration of devolution. If that is not bad enough, the body charged by the UK Government with checking these regulations, uniquely, had no representation from Northern Ireland. That meant that regulations that relate only to Northern Ireland were checked by a UK Parliament body consisting of Scottish, English and Welsh parliamentarians.
There are other concerns in respect of the regulations. Regulation 4 provides access to abortion up to 24 weeks on the same basis as GB. Dolores Kelly outlined concerns on that, and I do not intend to repeat them.
The way in which the abortion regulations were developed by the UK Parliament and the UK Government show that they have treated Northern Ireland with contempt. No Member of this Assembly would tolerate the Executive or a Minister acting in that way. In this context, it does not seem appropriate for this Assembly to go out of its way to infer that it is prepared to accept other aspects of these regulations, beyond 7 and 13, when the manner of their development as a whole has involved meting out to Northern Ireland such a litany of constitutional abuses.
I thank the Member for giving way. I ask sincerely, does he take any responsibility for the passage of this legislation being as a result of failed leadership in Northern Ireland?
Let me just deal with that point. We are where we are today. Clare made that point. We can go over what happened in the past, but Members are asked to deal with the circumstances today. Viewing this through a prism of wanting to be politically critical of a party and its approach in the past, whether it is right or not, does a disservice to what you are being asked to consider today. I know that there are Members who have wrestled with how they should vote on this matter. I understand the sincere considerations that you have about giving your support to the motion. Today is not about me; it is not about my party. The issue is much too important for that. I know that not everyone will agree with my position and I may not agree with their position, but we should all agree, as elected representatives of the people, that we take responsibility for reflecting the values of our society in the Assembly and should seek to reach common ground. I appeal to Members —.
Clear the Lobbies. The Question will be put again in three minutes. I remind Members that they should continue to uphold social distancing and that Members who have proxy voting arrangements in place should not come into the Chamber.
Before the Assembly divides, I want to remind you that, as per Standing Order 112, the Assembly has proxy voting arrangements in place. Members who have authorised another Member to vote on their behalf are not entitled to vote in person and should not enter the Lobbies. It is important that, during any Division, social distancing in the Chamber continues to be observed. To facilitate this, I ask that any Members in the Chamber who are not due to vote in person consider leaving the Chamber until the Division has concluded. Those Members who wish to vote in the Lobbies on the opposite side of the Chamber to where they are sitting should leave the Chamber by the nearest door and enter the relevant Lobby via the Rotunda. Those remaining Members who are sitting closest to the Lobby doors should enter the Lobbies first. Any Member who has voted may then wish to leave the Chamber until the Division has concluded. However, any Member who needs to vote in both Lobbies should not leave the Chamber. I remind Members of the need to be patient at all times, to follow the instructions of the Lobby Clerks and to respect the need for social distancing.
Dr Aiken, Mr Allen, Ms Anderson, Dr Archibald, Mr Boylan, Ms Dillon, Ms Dolan, Ms Ennis, Ms Flynn, Mr Gildernew, Ms Hargey, Ms Hunter, Mr Kearney, Ms C Kelly, Mr G Kelly, Ms Kimmins, Mr Lunn, Mr Lynch, Mr Lyttle, Mr McAleer, Mr McCann, Mr McGuigan, Mr McHugh, Ms Mullan, Mr Murphy, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O'Dowd, Mrs O'Neill, Ms Rogan, Mr Sheehan, Ms Sheerin, Mr Stewart
Tellers for the Ayes: Dr Archibald, Ms Sheerin
Mr Allister, Ms Armstrong, Ms Bailey, Mrs Barton, Mr Blair, Mr M Bradley, Ms P Bradley, Ms S Bradley, Ms Bradshaw, Mr K Buchanan, Mr T Buchanan, Mr Buckley, Ms Bunting, Mr Butler, Mrs Cameron, Mr Carroll, Mr Catney, Mr Chambers, Mr Clarke, Mr Dickson, Mrs Dodds, Mr Dunne, Mr Easton, Mrs Foster, Mr Frew, Mr Givan, Mr Harvey, Mr Hilditch, Mr Humphrey, Mr Irwin, Mrs D Kelly, Mrs Long, Mr Lyons, Mr McCrossan, Mr McGlone, Mr McGrath, Miss McIlveen, Ms McLaughlin, Mr McNulty, Mr Middleton, Mr Muir, Mr Newton, Mr O'Toole, Mr Poots, Mr Robinson, Mr Stalford, Mr Storey, Ms Sugden, Mr Swann, Mr Weir, Mr Wells, Miss Woods
Tellers for the Noes: Mrs Barton, Ms Bunting
The following Members voted in both Lobbies and are therefore not counted in the result: Mr Durkan, Ms Mallon, Mr Nesbitt
The following Members’ votes were cast by their notified proxy in this Division: Ms Armstrong voted for Mr Blair, Ms Bradshaw, Mr Dickson, Mrs Long, Mr Lyttle and Mr Muir. Mr K Buchanan voted for Mr M Bradley, Ms P Bradley, Mr T Buchanan, Mr Buckley, Ms Bunting [Teller, Noes], Mr Clarke, Mrs Dodds, Mr Dunne, Mr Easton, Mrs Foster, Mr Frew, Mr Givan, Mr Harvey, Mr Hilditch, Mr Humphrey, Mr Irwin, Mr Lyons, Miss McIlveen, Mr Newton, Mr Poots, Mr Robinson, Mr Stalford, Mr Storey and Mr Weir. Mr Butler voted for Mr Swann. Mr McGrath voted for Ms S Bradley, Mr Catney, Mr Durkan, Ms Hunter, Mrs D Kelly, Ms Mallon, Mr McCrossan, Mr McGlone, Ms McLaughlin, Mr McNulty and Mr O’Toole. Mr O’Dowd voted for Ms Anderson, Dr Archibald [Teller, Ayes], Mr Boylan, Ms Dillon, Ms Dolan, Ms Ennis, Ms Flynn, Mr Gildernew, Ms Hargey, Mr Kearney, Ms C Kelly, Mr G Kelly, Ms Kimmins, Mr Lynch, Mr McAleer, Mr McCann, Mr McGuigan, Mr McHugh, Ms Mullan, Mr Murphy, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mrs O’Neill, Ms Rogan, Mr Sheehan and Ms Sheerin [Teller, Ayes]. Miss Woods voted for Ms Bailey.
Question accordingly negatived.
I wish to allow Members a few moments to come back into the Chamber, so we will pause for a moment.
Main Question put. The Assembly divided:
Mr Allen, Mr Allister, Mrs Barton, Mr M Bradley, Ms P Bradley, Ms S Bradley, Mr K Buchanan, Mr T Buchanan, Mr Buckley, Ms Bunting, Mr Butler, Mrs Cameron, Mr Catney, Mr Chambers, Mr Clarke, Mrs Dodds, Mr Dunne, Mr Durkan, Mr Easton, Mrs Foster, Mr Frew, Mr Givan, Mr Harvey, Mr Hilditch, Mr Humphrey, Mr Irwin, Mrs D Kelly, Mr Lyons, Mr Lyttle, Mr McCrossan, Mr McGlone, Mr McGrath, Miss McIlveen, Mr McNulty, Ms Mallon, Mr Middleton, Mr Nesbitt, Mr Newton, Mr Poots, Mr Robinson, Mr Stalford, Mr Stewart, Mr Storey, Mr Swann, Mr Weir, Mr Wells
Tellers for the Ayes: Mrs Barton, Ms Bunting
Dr Aiken, Ms Anderson, Dr Archibald, Ms Armstrong, Ms Bailey, Mr Blair, Mr Boylan, Ms Bradshaw, Mr Carroll, Mr Dickson, Ms Dillon, Ms Dolan, Ms Ennis, Ms Flynn, Mr Gildernew, Ms Hargey, Mr Kearney, Ms C Kelly, Mr G Kelly, Ms Kimmins, Mrs Long, Mr Lunn, Mr Lynch, Mr McAleer, Mr McCann, Mr McGuigan, Mr McHugh, Ms McLaughlin, Mr Muir, Ms Mullan, Mr Murphy, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O'Dowd, Mrs O'Neill, Mr O'Toole, Ms Rogan, Mr Sheehan, Ms Sheerin, Ms Sugden, Miss Woods
Tellers for the Noes: Dr Archibald, Ms Sheerin
The following Members voted in both Lobbies and are therefore not counted in the result: Ms Hunter
The following Members’ votes were cast by their notified proxy in this Division: Ms Armstrong voted for Mr Blair, Ms Bradshaw, Mr Dickson, Mrs Long, Mr Lyttle and Mr Muir. Mr K Buchanan voted for Mr M Bradley, Ms P Bradley, Mr T Buchanan, Mr Buckley, Ms Bunting [Teller, Ayes], Mr Clarke, Mrs Dodds, Mr Dunne, Mr Easton, Mrs Foster, Mr Frew, Mr Givan, Mr Harvey, Mr Hilditch, Mr Humphrey, Mr Irwin, Mr Lyons, Miss McIlveen, Mr Newton, Mr Poots, Mr Robinson, Mr Stalford, Mr Storey and Mr Weir. Mr Butler voted for Mr Swann. Mr McGrath voted for Ms S Bradley, Mr Catney, Mr Durkan, Ms Hunter, Mrs D Kelly, Ms Mallon, Mr McCrossan, Mr McGlone, Ms McLaughlin, Mr McNulty and Mr O’Toole. Mr O’Dowd voted for Ms Anderson, Dr Archibald [Teller, Noes], Mr Boylan, Ms Dillon, Ms Dolan, Ms Ennis, Ms Flynn, Mr Gildernew, Ms Hargey, Mr Kearney, Ms C Kelly, Mr G Kelly, Ms Kimmins, Mr Lynch, Mr McAleer, Mr McCann, Mr McGuigan, Mr McHugh, Ms Mullan, Mr Murphy, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mrs O’Neill, Ms Rogan, Mr Sheehan and Ms Sheerin [Teller, Noes]. Miss Woods voted for Ms Bailey.
Main Question accordingly agreed to. Resolved:
That this Assembly welcomes the important intervention of disability campaigner Heidi Crowter and rejects the imposition of abortion legislation that extends to all non-fatal disabilities, including Down's syndrome.