The Catholic Bishops of Northern Ireland have expressed “grave concern” over the recent rejection by the NI Assembly in Stormont of an amendment aimed at preventing abortions in cases of non-fatal disabilities.
Bill presented by DUP party
The bill was presented by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which is opposed to abortion, but was defeated by a tight vote of 45 to 42 on December 15.
Those against it included Sinn Féin, some Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) members, Alliance, Ulster Unionist, Green MLAs and People Before Profit.
The new abortion law in NI
Northern Ireland’s abortion laws changed significantly following legislation approved by Westminster in July 2019. A new legal framework for abortion services in Northern Ireland was subsequently drawn up by the NI Office and took effect in March this year, making abortions legal in all circumstances within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy and up to 24 weeks in situations where continuing a pregnancy would involve risk of injury to the woman’s physical or mental health.
However, there is no term limit in cases of severe, but not life-threatening fetal impairment, including Down Syndrome. The proposed bill would have made abortions in these cases illegal and according to the DUP was aimed to remove discrimination against people with disabilities.
Discriminating disability is indefensible
Catholic Bishops in Northern Ireland, who have consistently opposed the new abortion legislation, strongly support this argument. “The effect of similar legislation in other parts of the world, especially in Scandinavia, has been to screen out of existence an entire sector of humanity”, the bishops write in a statement issued on Tuesday, reiterating that “to dispose of unborn human beings on the grounds that they are disabled is morally abhorrent and indefensible in a civilized society”.
According to the bishops, the defeat of the Amendment ”represents a profound and fundamental failure to respect the equality of all persons, born and unborn, in our society”.
Disabled babies less valued
“As a consequence”, they remark, “the Abortion Law in Northern Ireland will send a message to all citizens that unborn disabled babies are less valued than those who are able-bodied. This is the opposite of a commitment to equality, professed by so many who supported, directly or indirectly, the progress of this unjust legislation”.
Parents with disabled children
The NI bishops further note that discrimination in this context is not limited to the unborn child with a disability: “Those parents who choose to continue with the pregnancy could also face the prospect of being discriminated against when it comes to accessing medical care, education and financial support for their child”. Therefore, they say, “every effort must be made to ensure that children with disabilities and their families are treated justly with regard to the allocation of resources and funding”.
Caring for mother and child
The statement once again highlights the equal right to life and compassionate care for a mother and her unborn child: “The genuine difficulties experienced by some women in pregnancy are not addressed by ignoring the existence of the other life, or by supporting the fiction that abortion is exclusively a ‘health care issue’ or solely a matter of individual choice”.
“As we approach the celebration of the birth of the child Jesus, a birth which brings the hope of peace rooted in dignity to the whole world, we call on all Christians and citizens who believe in the equal rights of all, to redouble their efforts to defend the most vulnerable in our society from this unjust legislation”, the statement concludes.