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Stormont pushes back against abortion regulations

10 June 2020

The Stormont Assembly has passed a DUP motion calling for the rejection of abortion law enacted at Westminster. A Sinn Fein amendment which solely dealt with abortions in cases of severe disability was defeated. While the vote has no effect on the laws the DUP claimed that it would send a message to Westminster that the regulations are not supported by Stormont.

The new regulations came into force on the 31 March following a change in the law passed by MPs at Westminster in October of last year. Under the regulations abortion is legal in all circumstances in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. When the pregnancy poses a risk to the woman’s physical or mental health the time limit is 24 weeks. Abortions are also permitted when there has been a diagnosis of a fatal foetal abnormality or where the child is likely to suffer severe mental or physical impairment. These regulations were informed by recommendations made in 2018 by the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Its report said abortions should be allowed in Northern Ireland where there is “severe foetal impairment”, but that provision should not “perpetuate stereotypes” towards disabled people.

The Assembly debate focused on the issue of non-fatal disabilities with the DUP motion proposing that the inclusion of such criteria should be a basis for rejecting the legislation and regulations as a whole. So while the motion focused on a narrow point it had a much broader objective. This was made clear in the debate, with DUP leader Arlene Foster calling for responsibility for abortion to be restored to the Assembly. Given that severely limited grounds for abortion had been made even more restrictive during previous terms of the local institution the implication of such a transfer of powers was clear. The Sinn Fein amendment also focused on the issue of disability and called for severe disability to be removed as a criteria for abortion. While this had the appearance of being a modest adjustment to the law the transfer of powers to the Assembly to enact this would have had the same likely outcome as the DUP motion - that is a reset to an almost total ban. Despite the apparent conflict the differences between the DUP and Sinn Fein proposals related more to presentation rather than substance.

The DUP position on abortion is clear - they are opposed to abortion under any circumstances and will use any mechanism they can to overturn the reforms that have been introduced. In contrast Sinn Fein have consciously muddied the waters around the issue by claiming that they support reproductive rights while also making proposals that would limit those rights. The Sinn Fein double-speak was on full display around their proposed amendment to the DUP motion. Part of this was to make no mention of the amendment but to instead focus on its opposition to the DUP. This was exemplified on a Twitter post by Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald prior to the debate in which she claimed that “Sinn Féin opposes & will vote against the DUP motion this evening” and that the party wanted the “same rights secured for women in the South to be delivered in the North.” This latter claim about an all-Ireland approach may have been an obscure reference to the amendment but what it fails to mention is that, as they currently stand, the regulations in the North are more

liberal than those in the South in terms of when and under what criteria abortions can take place. Within the Sinn Fein schema bringing the North in to line with the South would actually represent a push back on abortion rights. In this context the progressive sounding all -Ireland approach is actually a cover for something that is thoroughly reactionary.

The reactionary character of what Sinn Fein was proposing came out strongly prior to and during the Assembly debate. Proposing the party’s amendment MLA Emma Sheerin claimed that it was an attempt to “refine” rather than overturn the law and bring it into line with regulations in the South. She said that that the Sinn Fein position was one that called “for a compassionate and reasonable approach to healthcare, but not one that would see abortion treated as a mainstream, normalised option.” This was backed up by other Sinn Fein members who intervened in the debate to deliver similarly constructed arguments. Prior to the debate a number of Sinn Fein MLAs issued a templated response to journalists stating that the party did “not support CEDAW’s recommendation to provide abortion in the case of severe fetal impairment”. While such public statements by Sinn Fein are designed to appeal to various audiences there is no doubt that its position on abortion leans more towards restrictions. What else can be inferred by the assertion from Emma Sheerin that abortion should NOT be considered as a “mainstream, normalised option”. This smacks of the stigmatisation and shaming of women who wish to use these services. In a situation where woman are free to exercise choice why would abortion be viewed as less “normal” or “mainstream” than any other service?

The Sinn Fein position on abortion is an utterly cynical ploy to enable it to appeal to members of the younger generations, that came out strongly for the party in the last election, while also reassuring traditional conservative elements among its base. At a deeper level it shows the severe limitation of their nationalist politics which seeks to maintain a cross class alliance by avoiding potentially divisive issues. In the case of Ireland it also means staying within the “nationalist family” and deferring to the Dublin government. Rather than being trailblazers on the issue of abortion Sinn Fein have been ultra cautious and never gone beyond the policy promoted by the Irish government. Indeed, on abortion, Sinn Fein actually lagged behind the government and only shifted its position following the decisive victory for Repeal in the referendum.

Another challenge for nationalism (and unionism) and the broader political set up in the North is that the issue of abortion cuts across traditional boundaries. We saw this in the vote in the Assembly which did not break down completely along unionist / nationalist lines. The most glaring example was the three quarters of SDLP MLAs who supported the DUP motion. While this reactionary 'unity' is presented as a positive development it also serves to dispel the myth that the ending of the unionist majority in the Assembly has opened up the path to liberal reforms. Opposition to this attack on women's rights also crosses sectarian lines and, on this issue, the public is far in advance of the Assembly with opinion polls showing strong support for liberalisation.

Yet despite all this, the change in the law, the new regulations and a high level of public support for these changes, the political institutions still continue to restrict access to abortion. Seven months since abortion was decriminalised and two months since regulations came into force, the Department of Health has yet to commission any services. Those services which are provided are limited and on an interim basis. This has meant women and girls have been left without vital health care until they are beyond the legal 12 week gestation period.

This has also been compounded by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic which has made it unsafe to travel for an abortion, severely restricting women’s ability to access the service outside Northern Ireland. In other regions health authorities have introduced emergency tele-medicine that allows women to safely take both abortion pills at home but such measures have not been introduced in the North. The excuse from the Health Minister Robin Swann for not providing this service is that it is cross-cutting matter that needs to be approved by the whole Executive. But this would of course give the DUP (and other parties) the opportunity to exercise a veto.

Since October 2019, when the new law on abortion came into force in the North, there have been three attempts, including the latest DUP motion, to overturn the legislation or frustrate its operation. This illustrates the fact that the struggle over reproductive rights is ongoing and that those reforms that have been won are not yet secure. The support of MLAs for the anti-abortion motion shows that reforms are certainly not secure in the hands of the Assembly. Moreover, we shouldn’t be complacent in believing that such votes will have no influence or that a Westminster government will not concede ground. We know from the history of the local institutions - and the inducements that have been offered to restore them after a collapse or to just keep them running - that the issue of abortion could become part of any negotiations to resolve the next inevitable crisis.

While the campaign for women’s rights in the North and across the whole of Ireland has undoubtedly won significant reforms in recent years these can only be defended and further advanced through the creation of a movement that aims at the much broader transformation of society. It is only the existence of a movement that is working class in composition and guided by socialism that can raise the prospect not of limited and temporary reforms but the permanent liberation of women.

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