Christian charities and pro-life campaigners have slammed a decision by members of the Northern Ireland Assembly (MLAs) to vote down a law that would have removed disability discrimination from abortion legislation.
In December, the Severe Fetal Impairment Abortion (Amendment) Bill was defeated by 45 votes to 43 at consideration stage by the MLAs.
This was despite strong support for the central aim of the proposals at previous stages which would have removed a rule in the 2019 abortion regulations allowing abortion up to birth in cases of a ‘severe fetal impairment’.
In Great Britain, this rule has been interpreted to include babies with disabilities such as Down’s syndrome and cleft palate.
Ross Hendry, chief executive of CARE, said the organisation was ‘deeply saddened’ that the proposal was voted down, given that it should have been ‘uncontroversial’.
He commented, ‘As well as providing greater protections to preborn disabled babies, [voting for the bill] would have sent a strong message that the lives of people with disabilities are just as valuable as those who are considered able bodied.
‘The bill before Stormont should have been uncontroversial. It was about providing very limited and specific protections to disabled babies – protections that are supported by campaigners, human rights experts, and a huge majority of people in Northern Ireland.’
His comments echoed arguments made during the proceedings, when debates from the floor heard how it was important to end disability inequality in NI.
Christopher Stalford MLA stressed that NI abortion provisions, as currently drafted, compound disability inequality.
He said, ‘The law, as currently drafted, affords greater protection to human beings in the womb who are deemed to be able bodied than it affords to human beings in the womb who have non-fatal disabilities, like Down’s syndrome.
‘The reality is because of this law people with disabilities in our society feel less valuable, and [this] encourages our society to view people with Down’s syndrome and other non-fatal disabilities as less valued.’
NI First Minister Paul Givan, who was the original sponsor of the bill before becoming First Minister, said, ‘This bill gives us an opportunity to say to [people with disabilities], that we in this House place a high value on their lives.’
He also hailed the campaigning work of people such as Heidi Crowter for continuing to challenge the UK government’s abortion policy.
After the vote, Carla Lockhart MP (pictured), DUP member of parliament for Upper Bann, tweeted, ‘The message from Stormont today is if you have a disability your life is of lesser value. A shameful day.’