Monday 17 November 2008

Northern Ireland decides on abortion, not Westminster, says British government

Shaun Woodward, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, has said that Northern Ireland's politicians should decide on their abortion law, not Westminster.

“Successive governments have consistently said that extending the Abortion Act 1967 to Northern Ireland would need the most careful consultation there and that no change to the current arrangements should be made against the wishes of the people in Northern Ireland" he said.

“The government believes that the best forum for taking decisions on this matter is the Northern Ireland Assembly once it has taken responsibility for criminal law.”

Whilst this is an encouraging government statement, it provides absolutely no grounds for complacency, Liam Gibson, SPUC's Northern Ireland development officer, said to me over the weekend.

In 1990 Gordon Brown voted to extend the Abortion Act to Northern Ireland, a move which failed because of the opposition of the then ruling Conservative government.

As Prime Minister, Gordon Brown faced the political reality that the people of Northern Ireland don't want the Abortion Act. At present ultimate legislative power remains in Westminster but political legitimacy lies with the elected representatives at Stormont. If Gordon Brown's government had allowed Parliament to impose the Act on the Province during the passage of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act last month, against the will of the devolved Assembly, it would have led to an unprecedented constitutional dilemma.

Only eight months ago, the Prime Minister refused to rule out MPs imposing the Abortion Act on Northern Ireland during the passage of the Bill. In the event, thank God, Gordon Brown climbed down and made sure that MPs made no such move.

But despite this setback for pro-abortion extremists in the House of Commons, they haven't gone away. The legislative route may be closed for the time being ... but if a pro-abortion MP is selected in the private members' ballot at the start of the next session of Parliament, then the threat of the '67 Act being extended returns once again.

There are also many other ways in which the abortion lobby can achieve its aims. Already Alliance for Choice has said it will pursue its agenda through the courts. And next year the European Court of Human Rights will hear a case supported by the Irish Family Planning Association which seeks overturn the Republic of Ireland's constitutional ban on abortion. SPUC and a number of other international groups have been given leave to intervene in the proceedings.

While the case is weak, if the court was to rule against the Republic it would have global implications and would represent a step towards access to abortion being recognised as a human right.

Earlier this year a report issued by the implementation committee for the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) called on the British government to extend the Abortion Act to Northern Ireland. Other forces within the United Nations are also determined to create a legal obligation on all nations to recognise abortion on demand a human right. The co-operation of the new US administration led by pro-abortion Barack Obama may be crucial to outcome UN attempts to promote a right to abortion internationally.

Action in the courts and international pressure from agencies like the Council of Europe, the EU and the UN do not rely upon public opinion so they can be very difficult to fight. Forty years after its became law, the pro-abortion lobby in Britain has failed to have the Abortion Act extended to Northern Ireland because of the strength of Northern Ireland's politicians on the issue and intense lobbying throughout Northern Ireland and Britain. There can be little doubt, however, that the pro-life movement will have to face many more serious threats within the next few years.