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McDonald says Sinn Féin abstained in abortion bill vote because it was a DUP 'stunt'

Sinn Féin abstained from a vote on the Severe Fetal Impairment Abortion (Amendment) Bill last night.
Mar 16th 2021, 1:04 PM 32,744 31

Updated Mar 16th 2021, 4:24 PM

SINN FÉIN LEADER Mary Lou McDonald has said her party abstained on a bill passed in the Northern Ireland Assembly seeking to tighten the limits on terminating a pregnancy because it was a “stunt” by unionists to obstruct abortion services.

A doctor’s organisation has said it was “deeply saddened” the Severe Fetal Impairment Abortion (Amendment) Bill that would remove non-fatal fetal impairment as a grounds for an abortion, had been passed.

The bill would amend the Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2020 and impact terminations after 24 weeks where the fetus has a non-fatal disability.

The bill passed its second stage in the Assembly by 48 votes to 12, with 27 abstentions.

Sinn Féin abstained from voting on the bill, with Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill saying that the Assembly’s priority should be on commissioning services for those who need them.

Asked today about the criticism relating to inconsistencies in Sinn Féin policy on abortion, and for abstaining on the bill, the Sinn Fein leader said the bill was a “stunt” by the DUP, stating their overall approach is to block the commissioning of abortion services, “full stop”.

She said the bill was being used “as a mechanism… to pit people with disabilities or people with with children with disabilities, against vulnerable women and couples”. 

“We’re not playing that game with them. We are not going down that rabbit hole with them. The discussions have been had, the law has been passed, the services need to be commissioned,” she said.

Northern Ireland’s laws on abortion were changed by MPs at Westminster in 2019 while the Stormont administration was collapsed.

Currently, the laws allow abortion in all circumstances up to 12 weeks, and it is permitted up to 24 weeks if there is a risk to the woman’s physical or mental health.

In cases of fatal fetal abnormality or a serious physical or mental impairment that would cause a serious disability, there is no time limit in place. Abortions after 24 weeks in those circumstances are uncommon.

McDonald said her party’s position on abortion has been consistent, North and South of the border.

“We want the same legislative framework and regime to apply for the whole island. It is an utter disgrace that the DUP and the Ulster unionist have blocked the commissioning of abortion services, that’s completely unacceptable to us,” she said, adding that the matter was being raised with the Executive this afternoon.

“We expect to see a paper from the Health Minister Robin Swann, we expect the commissioning of these services. That’s what women need, that’s what women are entitled to add to,” she added, saying that the legislation has been passed, but there is a blocking of the services at Executive level.

“Political play acting” is no good to the women who need the services, she added, stating that Sinn Féin will continue pressing for those services.

“We’ve been very, very clear today with our Unionist colleagues that the jig is up, and we expect to see the services commissioned,” said McDonald.

Doctors for Choice Northern Ireland said it was “deeply saddened and disappointed” that the bill passed its second stage in the Assembly.

The group said the bill could mean women are “forced to rush their decisions” on whether to terminate a pregnancy.

“If there is no time for specialist investigations and opinions to be sought before this deadline, once again Northern Ireland would be exporting its wives, mothers, sisters and daughters on the lonely journey to receive healthcare in England.”

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 Speaking during the debate, Michelle O’Neill said she felt a “deep unease about the narrow focus of the legislation”.

“The private member’s bill that is being debated today does nothing to address the immediate need to deal with that deficit in compassionate healthcare for women,” O’Neill said.

 O’Neill said that it is a “human right to have compassionate healthcare” and that “for that reason, the focus of the Assembly “should be on how we commission services for women who need them, when they need them”.

“That should be the focus and priority of the Assembly. Therefore, we will abstain from the vote on the Second Stage of the Bill.” 

The bill still needs to go through a committee, consideration, further consideration and final stage.

It has been referred to the Health Committee to be scrutinised.

Members of the Abortion Rights Campaign and Alliance for Choice have criticised Sinn Féin’s choice to abstain from voting last night.

Abortion Rights Campaign co-convenor Helen Stonehouse said that “for Sinn Féin to claim a position of supporting women’s healthcare while refusing to oppose abortion restrictions is disingenuous”.

“Abortion care must be free, safe, legal and local across the island of Ireland – pregnant people deserve to be cared for in their own communities,” Stonehouse said.

With reporting by Christina Finn and Press Association

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Lauren Boland

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