By Ann Orr
Writing at the beginning of April about the legal changes on the issue of abortion, we warned “the indications are that Stormont politicians, instead of making basic healthcare more easily accessible, are pushing back against the recent changes.” Unfortunately, this was confirmed earlier this week, when a majority of MLAs voted in favour of the DUP motion to reject the “imposition of abortion legislation” from Westminster.
In total, 46 MLAs – including 9 SDLP representatives and 1 Alliance Party member- voted in favour of this anti-choice motion. It is not surprising that members of the SDLP, officially a “pro-life” party, voted to attack the rights of women and pregnant people. As we have highlighted before, the UUPs and Alliance Party’s positions of abortion being considered a “matter of conceince”, thus allowing members to vote in whichever they want, is unacceptable. This is a matter of conscience for the pregnant person only. It is not for politicians to dictate what choices we can make about our own lives and bodies.
Sinn Féin, while opposing the motion itself, also put forward an amendment calling for the rejection of the “specific legislative provision in the abortion legislation which goes beyond fatal foetal abnormalities to include non-fatal disabilities, including Down Syndrome.” The content of the motion would have meant that pregnant people here facing the same barriers that continue to exist in the South, where people are still forced to travel to Britain in some circumstances. It shows Sinn Féin can also not be trusted to fight and defend the rights of women and pregnant people.
It is not only infuriating but also hypocritical that politicians claim to be acting in the interest of disabled people. The way to support individuals who have a disability, pregnant people and parents of children with disabilities is to invest in services and to actively challenge stigma and discrimination that exist in our society. That requires further funding to ensure our public services are accessible for all. Additional funding is needed, particularly in education, to guarantee people with even severe disabilities can access education and ensure that parents of disabled children are fully supported. This must include access to mainstream education where at all possible, and the support of special needs assistants; access to support and respite services for families with disabled children; and supported living schemes for adults. Crucially, it must guarantee access to financial support due to increased costs and restrictions on parents’ ability to work. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has recently highlighted that 50% of the 14 million people living in poverty across the UK either have a disability or live with someone who does. Disabled people are also significantly more likely to be unemployed or “economically inactive”. It is likely that the crisis caused by Covid-19 will only exacerbate this situation. Instead of addressing these structural issues, anti-choice politicians attempt to shame pregnant people!
The Stormont vote has no immediate impact on the legal situation here. It could be argued that this is simply a way for the DUP and others to grandstand on this issue. However, it is very possible that this vote will be part of a concerted effort by politicians here from both sides of the sectarian divide to put pressure on the Tory government to tighten restrictions. This was further indicated on 4 June by the DUP’s Jeffrey Donaldson MP in Westminster, who argued that there was no requirement for Westminster to debate the regulations relating to Northern Ireland. As it stands, the Northern Ireland No.2 Regulations 2020 are due to be debated on Monday, 8 June.
We want to be clear – the majority of people in Northern Ireland have again and again expressed support for abortion rights. We marched, we organised and we actively challenged the archaic ban by highlighting the availability and safety of abortion pills. The idea that Stormont is speaking for ordinary people on this issue is ludicrous. It is likely that they are fully aware of this themselves as they have decided to condemn the new laws rather than move to pass new legislation now that the Assembly is functioning again. It is likely they are aware that this would be met with a massive movement by ordinary people. We must resist any attempts to restrict or curtail abortion rights. In fact, we need to be campaigning to ensure that abortion services are accessible and provided across the North. We are asking people to sign the ROSA NI petition to show you oppose any attempted attacks on abortion rights in Northern Ireland by the politicians.