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Letter from the Catholic Bishops of Northern Ireland to MLAs regarding new regulations on abortion

  • We are morally obliged to save the lives of unborn children and to protect mothers from the pressures they might experience at the time of an unplanned pregnancy.”
  • “We urge you to take steps to formulate new Regulations that will reflect more fully the will of a significant majority of the people in this jurisdiction to protect the lives of  mothers and their unborn children.”

Please see below the content of the letter from the Catholic Bishops of Northern Ireland to all members of the NI Legislative Assembly regarding the New Regulations on Abortion Services in N Ireland:

Dear Member of the Legislative Assembly,

As the Catholic Bishops of Northern Ireland, we have a responsibility to do all we can to promote a culture of care and respect for life in our society. This includes a responsibility to inform the conscience of all members of the Catholic Church and people of good will regarding the fundamental moral values at stake in the issue of abortion. 

Our opposition to the new abortion Regulations brought into effect here by the Westminster Parliament is rooted in the Catholic Church’s teaching concerning the dignity of every human life, regardless of age, ability, gender or background. This teaching prohibits the direct and deliberate intention to end the life of an unborn baby at any stage of his or her development. This right to life of the child is inextricably linked to the right to life and well-being of the mother. 

At the same time, we recognise that the legislation passed into law by the Westminster Parliament stands now to be implemented. While we regard this to be an unjust law, which was imposed without the consent of the people of Northern Ireland, we are morally obliged, wherever possible, to do all we can to save the lives of unborn children, which could be lost through abortion, and to protect mothers from the pressures they might experience at the time of an unplanned pregnancy. We trust that you recognise this to be an obligation we all share as concerned citizens and public representatives.

In our recent press statement (Tuesday 31 March 2020), regarding the new Regulations concerning abortion services, we indicated that we would be contacting MLA’s  with regard to the issues we have highlighted.  We believe, ‘Politicians and all people of good will, who recognise the extreme nature of the Regulations, should not meekly acquiesce to their promulgation.’ (Press Release Tuesday 31 March 2020).

In particular, we take this opportunity to encourage you to debate these Regulations as a matter of urgency. Insofar as they exceed the requirements of the Northern Ireland Act 2019, we urge you to take steps to formulate new Regulations that will reflect more fully the will of a significant majority of the people in this jurisdiction to protect the lives of  mothers and their unborn children.  Indeed, as the NIO has noted, this commitment to protect life was expressed by 79% of people, who responded to the consultation exercise conducted by the UK Government last December.

As the Catholic Bishops of Northern Ireland we are eager to enter into dialogue with MLAs from across the political parties in an attempt to explore, where possible, how new Regulations can be formulated, which express the will of most people in our society to support and protect the lives of mothers and their unborn children. As a first step, we have included with this letter our recent submission (see below) to the Westminster Scrutiny Committee dealing with the relevant legislation, for your consideration.

We are very conscious that you and all MLAs are under great pressure at this time, due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the many issues you are called upon to address every day. However, we trust that within the Assembly, time can be made to undertake the initial debate that is so urgently needed regarding these extreme Regulations.

We look forward to hearing from you about these issues in due course.

Wishing you every blessing and strength in your important work,

Yours sincerely,

Most Rev Eamon Martin DD

Archbishop of Armagh

Apostolic Administrator of Dromore

 

 

Most Rev Noel Treanor DD

Bishop of Down and Connor

 

 

Most Rev Donal McKeown DD

Bishop of Derry

 

 

Most Rev Larry Duffy DD

Bishop of Clogher

 

 

Most Rev Michael Router DD

Auxiliary Bishop of Armagh

 

Submission to the Joint committee on statutory instruments on the Abortion (NI) Regulations 2020 by the Catholic Bishops of Northern Ireland 

Friday 3rd April 2020

Preamble
As Catholic Bishops our opposition to the new Regulations is rooted in the Catholic Church’s teaching concerning the dignity of every human life, regardless of age, ability, gender or background. This teaching prohibits the direct and deliberate intention to end the life of an unborn baby at any stage of his or her development.  This right to life of the child is inextricably linked to the right to life and well-being of the mother.

At the same time, we recognise that the legislation passed into law by the Westminster Parliament stands now to be implemented.  While we regard this to be an unjust law, which was imposed without the consent of the people of Northern Ireland, we are morally obliged, wherever possible, to do all we can to save the lives of unborn children, which could be lost through abortion, and to protect mothers from the pressures they might experience at the time of an unplanned pregnancy.

To that end, we seek to highlight the Regulations, so that even when the legislation is being scrutinised by the relevant committees, consideration can be given to the fact that section 9 of the Executive Formation (Northern Ireland) Act 2019 Act was passed by parliament with the unexpected use of statutory powers and that there are special reasons which call for proper scrutiny of the extraordinarily sensitive issues by the Northern Ireland Assembly.

The context in which section 9 of the Executive Formation Act was passed into law:

  • Abortion is a devolved matter for the Northern Ireland Assembly
  • The Northern Ireland Assembly had clearly voted to retain the existing law.
  • The law is now set out in section 9 of the Northern Ireland Executive Formation Act 2019 (“the Act”). The Secretary of State for NI is required to implement the recommendations of the CEDAW report at paragraphs 85 and 86.

The Overreach of the Regulations

  • Despite a context in which significant constitutional questions were raised by the passing of the Act, the Regulations go far beyond the requirements of the CEDAW recommendations.
  • Regulations must be made which appear to the Secretary of State to be necessary and appropriate. For the reasons outlined below the Regulations go far beyond what is necessary. Further, in the context that pertains, namely that section 9 concerned a devolved matter, the Regulations were inappropriate in exceeding what was strictly required.
  • Set out below are a number of the discrete areas, where the Regulations overreach and take the law beyond what the recommendations of CEDAW require. It is accepted that the CEDAW report at paragraphs 85 and 86 is not written in the style of a parliamentary draftsman, but nevertheless the appropriate course in transposing the recommendations into Regulations, is to adopt measures, which are proportionate, having regard to the CEDAW recommendations and the context in which the section 9 of the Act was passed.

(i)                  CEDAW does not require abortion for any reason up to 12 weeks as now permitted.

(ii)              The incorporation of the provisions of section 1 of the Abortion Act 1967 into the Regulations provides for abortion in almost all circumstances up to 24 weeks. There is no gestational limit laid down by the CEDAW Report and the current 24 week time limit in England Wales and Scotland is among the most permissive in Europe.

(iii)            The inclusion of the word “seriously disabled” in respect of fetal abnormality in Regulation 7 of the Regulations eclipses and goes significantly beyond the wording of the language of CEDAW.  Paragraph 85 of CEDAW refers to “severe fetal impairment which includes FFA ” The language of Regulation 7 of the 2020 Regulations mirrors the amendment to the Abortion Act[1] 1967, which refers to a substantial risk that the child would be “seriously handicapped”. This diminution of the language was clearly unnecessary and inappropriate. The manner in which the English and Welsh provision of “seriously handicapped” has been interpreted by Courts and prosecuting authorities reveals that the widest possible margin is allowed, including in one instance a child aborted because of a cleft palate[2]. It should be recalled that the UK has ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2009, which requires appropriate protection before as well as after birth for those born with a disability.[3]

(iv)            Additionally and inter alia the Regulations omit to provide an appropriate inspection framework for abortions, sufficient conscience protection for all medical professionals and proper counselling provision for those considering an abortion.

Conclusion
It is understood that the Committee must act within its own Terms of Reference. There are nevertheless substantial and relevant matters, which we believe should be brought to the attention of parliament in the Committee’s report.

Appendix

Framework for abortion services in Northern Ireland

  • Section 9 of the Act states:

(1)The Secretary of State must ensure that the recommendations in paragraphs 85 and 86 of the CEDAW report are implemented in respect of Northern Ireland.

(2)Sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 (attempts to procure abortion) are repealed under the law of Northern Ireland.

(3)No investigation may be carried out, and no criminal proceedings may be brought or continued, in respect of an offence under those sections under the law of Northern Ireland (whenever committed).

(4)The Secretary of State must by regulations make whatever other changes to the law of Northern Ireland appear to the Secretary of State to be necessary or appropriate for the purpose of complying with subsection

  • In so far as the recommendations seek to expand abortion rights the obligations set out in paragraph 85 of the CEDAW report require:

Abortion where there is a threat to the pregnant woman’s physical or mental health without conditionality of “long-term or permanent” effects;

Rape and incest; and

Severe foetal impairment, including FFA, without perpetuating stereotypes towards persons with disabilities and ensuring appropriate and ongoing support, social and financial, for women who decide to carry such pregnancies to term.

  • The Regulations permit abortion in the following circumstances:

Pregnancy not exceeding 12 weeks

  1. A registered medical professional may terminate a pregnancy where a registered medical professional is of the opinion, formed in good faith, that the pregnancy has not exceeded its 12th week.

Risk to physical or mental health where pregnancy not exceeding 24 weeks

4.—(1) A registered medical professional may terminate a pregnancy where two registered medical professionals are of the opinion, formed in good faith, that—

(a)the pregnancy has not exceeded its 24th week; and

(b)the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman which is greater than if the pregnancy were terminated.

(2) In forming an opinion as to the matter mentioned in paragraph (1)(b), account may be taken of the pregnant woman’s actual or reasonably foreseeable circumstances.

Severe fetal impairment or fatal fetal abnormality

7.—(1) A registered medical professional may terminate a pregnancy where two registered medical professionals are of the opinion, formed in good faith, that there is a substantial risk that the condition of the fetus is such that—

(a)the death of the fetus is likely before, during or shortly after birth; or

(b)if the child were born, it would suffer from such physical or mental impairment as to be seriously disabled.

(2) In the case of a woman carrying more than one fetus, anything done to terminate the pregnancy as regards a particular fetus is authorised by paragraph (1) only if that paragraph applies in relation to that fetus.                                                        

ENDS

For media contact: Catholic Communications Office Maynooth: Martin Long +353 (0) 86 172 7678 and Brenda Drumm +353 (0) 87 310 4444.

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