Northern Ireland

Introduction of new abortion legislation not straightfoward

The abortion amendment from Labour's Stella Creasy received strong support from fellow MPs
The abortion amendment from Labour's Stella Creasy received strong support from fellow MPs

After Westminster votes to legalise same sex marriage in the north and improve access to abortions political correspondent John Manley looks at what happens next.

MPs voting on two amendments to the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill, which aim to introduce same sex marriage and liberalise the region's abortion laws, is arguably the easy bit – formulating legislation is likely to prove more complex.

Responsibility for drafting the necessary secondary legislation that will see the law in Northern Ireland relating to these two issues changed now passes to Secretary of State Karen Bradley.

The Irish News yesterday asked the Mrs Bradley's department, the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) to explain how this process would proceed between now and October 21, the deadline specified in each of the amendments for the restoration of devolution.

The NIO said it currently wasn't in a position to explain the process, citing the fact that the bill was still being considered by the House of Lords yesterday.

Drafting and implementing legislation relating to same sex marriage in line with Conor McGinn's amendment is relatively straightforward, in that it simply involves extending the law as it exists in Britain to Northern Ireland. There are parallels here with the 2004 Civil Partnership, which was introduced in the north when the assembly was suspended.

There are expected to be a few tweaks to the equal marriage legislation that will enable churches to opt out of performing same sex marriage services and other minor modifications to accommodate differences in how property is transferred between spouses, but beyond that the template exists.

Changing abortion law is less simple. Stella Creasy's amendment – entitled International obligations in respect of Cedaw – takes its lead from Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw), a global treaty on women’s rights adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1979.

Cedaw advocates abortion law should be decriminalised by repealing laws dating back to the 19th century, which isn't currently the case in England and Wales and may well mean legislation has to updated across the Irish Sea.

The potential for greatest controversy lies in the interpretation of Cedaw's recommendations and whether the regional legislation will be regarded as an extension of the 1967 Abortion Act.

It is expected to make provision for terminations in cases of severe or fatal foetal abnormality and sexual crimes, including rape and incest. A threat to a woman's physical and mental health would also be the basis for an abortion. In England, the permitted time limit to procure a legal abortion is 24 weeks and 6 days – twice the term in the Republic.

It's likely anti-abortion groups will argue that the Westminster vote will lead to 'abortion on demand', whereas the pro-choice lobby believe Stella Creasy's amendment merely makes it easier for women to access a healthcare service that is freely available everywhere else in these islands.