A move to legalise access to abortion for women who experience fatal foetal abnormalities in Northern Ireland will not be considered because of the collapse of the assembly, the Stormont health minister has said.
Sinn Fein has said it will prioritise increasing abortion access and other equality issues if it is in talks with the DUP after a likely election this year.
Abortion is banned in Northern Ireland in all but a small number of circumstances. In December 2015, the Belfast high court ruled that denying access to the procedure in cases of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormalities was a breach of human rights.
David Ford, who was justice minister at the time, ruled out legislating for terminations for victims of sexual crime but tried to progress a bill for women who experienced fatal foetal abnormalities. An expert group was also established last year to consider the possible change in the law.
If the assembly is dissolved ministers will no longer be able to consider the possible change in the law from the expert commission or Mr Ford’s bill.
“I indicated previously that I would work with the justice minister to bring forward proposals in the new year for consideration by the [ministerial] executive, taking account of the findings of the fatal foetal abnormality working group,” Michelle O’Neill, the Sinn Fein MLA and health minister, said.
“The current situation is that there is no longer an executive in place to consider those proposals, as a result of the fallout over the renewable heat incentive controversy.”
Unlike the Republic, abortion rights could be extended in Northern Ireland through a straightforward legal change without the need for a referendum.
A Sinn Fein spokesman yesterday told The Times that the party would push for legislative changes if it is in talks to form the next Northern Irish government.
The party had said last week that Mr McGuinness’s resignation was partly due to the DUP’s reluctance to progress issues such as abortion and marriage equality.
“The apparent collapse of the executive means that there is now no end in sight to the trauma inflicted on women with fatal foetal diagnoses of being forced to travel to England to seek lawful abortion,” Patrick Corrigan, Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland programme director, said.
“Whoever is in ministerial office after the election must address this disgraceful situation and also that of other women left with a choice between boarding a plane or facing prosecution simply for seeking healthcare available on the NHS in every other part of the UK.”
Northern Ireland has a vocal anti-abortion lobby and Stormont has previously rejected calls to relax abortion laws. Jim Wells, the former DUP health minister, welcomed the delay in considering new abortion legislation.
“The minister is saying that she cannot take this issue forward because there is currently no executive to refer it to,” he said. “If the executive returns then the issue may come back on to the table as it were. I believe that there is no need whatsoever for any change in the current law on abortion in Northern Ireland.”
The 1967 UK Abortion Act effectively made the procedure available to any woman who needed it after a spate of deaths from backstreet terminations. The act was never extended to Northern Ireland, which is still regulated under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act.
The Republic had operated under the same law until the 2013 Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act was passed which clarified how suicidal women could access a termination.
Performing the procedure or procuring an abortion is punishable by a criminal conviction in both jurisdictions.
Three women have appeared before the courts in Northern Ireland in the last year facing charges relating to ordering abortion pills online.
The most recent case involves a 21-year-old woman and a 22-year-old man. This week, Belfast high court was told that the woman accused of taking drugs to induce a miscarriage would be at heightened risk of suicide if she was identified.
Source: The Times