By Lucy Marron
Just one week after International Women’s Day, a bill seeking to restrict abortion access in cases of non-fatal fetal abnormality was backed by a majority of MLAs and passed its second stage. Paul Givan of the DUP put forward this bill, cynically using the guise of defending the rights of disabled people in order to cut across the right to choose. For anti-choice groups, undermining abortion access in these circumstances is the thin end of the wedge, aimed at opening up a broader assault on the right to choose.
Alongside the DUP, the bill was backed by the TUV, a large majority of UUP and SDLP MLAs, and one Alliance representative. Despite vocally opposing the bill, Sinn Féin MLAs abstained and essentially allowed it to pass. This is not shocking, given that Sinn Féin themselves put forward an amendment which supported restricting abortion access in cases of non-fatal fetal abnormality during a debate last year.
For Paul Givan to pose as defending the rights of people with disabilities is hypocritical in the extreme. As Minister for Communities, he was responsible for overseeing brutal ‘welfare reform’ policies which sharply impacted people with disabilities and their families, policies which the DUP, Sinn Féin and Alliance allowed the Tories to introduce. Restricting abortion access in cases of non-fatal abnormalities will simply force pregnant people to again seek terminations elsewhere, which has a disproportionate impact on those from working-class backgrounds. Rather than restricting the right to choose, we should focus on funding all services necessary to support people with disabilities and their families.
The failure of the Stormont Executive to commission abortion services a year after new regulations came into place has led to a postcode lottery in access. Under threat of legal action, the Westminster government has been forced to compel the Department of Health to draw up plans for abortion services. However, we cannot rely on the Tories, the courts or on any of the main parties at Stormont to defend the right to choose – including those who have been forced to adopt a more ‘progressive’ stand in recent years under pressure from below. Instead, pro-choice groups need to prepare to engage in a new wave of protests and civil disobedience in order to defend abortion rights and demand access on the NHS in Northern Ireland for all who need it.