DUP attempting to roll back abortion progress in NI, says O’Neill

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The DUP is attempting to roll back legislation liberalising Northern Ireland’s abortion laws, Sinn Fein’s vice-president Michelle O’Neill has said.

The large unionist party is opposed to terminations and has proposed a new law to prevent them being carried out in cases of non-fatal disabilities.

Sinn Fein will this week ask Stormont ministers to commission abortion services two years after legislation enabling the procedure was passed at Westminster while devolution was suspended.

Ms O’Neill said: “This is the thin end of the wedge and attempting to reopen a debate that has already been had around women’s healthcare provision.

“I am here to give a voice to those women who find themselves in incredibly difficult and very vulnerable circumstances.”

Ms O’Neill addressed the assembly in her role as a senior member of her party rather than Deputy First Minister in a devolved five-party powersharing administration which is divided on the issue.

She said the DUP and the Ulster Unionist Health Minister Robin Swann were “failing” women by refusing to commission services legislated for long ago.

Ms O’Neill added: “Women are entitled to have compassionate healthcare.

“It is a human right to have compassionate healthcare and should be the focus of what this assembly is concerned about.”

Northern Ireland’s previously restrictive laws were changed by MPs at Westminster in 2019 at a time when the Stormont administration was collapsed.

The laws allow abortion in all circumstances up to 12 weeks.

Terminations are permitted up to 24 weeks when there is a risk to the woman’s physical or mental health.

There is no time limit in cases of fatal foetal abnormality or when there has been a diagnosis of a serious physical or mental impairment that would cause a serious disability.

Abortions post 24 weeks in those circumstances are extremely rare.

The DUP’s proposed law focuses on preventing terminations in cases of disability.

It was debated at Stormont on Monday.

Those with disabilities like Down’s syndrome should not be less worthy of protection from abortion, the DUP said.

Senior member Paul Givan said: “This Bill is about tackling the attitudes and myths that lead to failures to provide high-quality support and care.”

He said discriminatory attitudes were still present, adding: “This is not something that our assembly should tolerate.”

Individual health trusts have set up temporary early medical abortion pathways but Northern Ireland-wide services have not yet been commissioned by the Department of Health.

Mr Swann has argued that, as a controversial issue, it is for the Executive to agree to set up the services.

Mr Givan said Down’s syndrome life expectancy had increased to 50 or 60 years.

He lambasted the 2019 legislation, saying: “This sends out the message loud and clear that the lives of people with disabilities are less valuable and worthy of protection than the lives of people without disabilities. A law which fosters this thinking in 2021 is completely unacceptable.”

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