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UK government to consult with churches over North's abortion law

Activists have warned the UK government that it has a legal obligation to limit the scope of conscientious objection.

Pro-choice activists gather outside Stormont.
Pro-choice activists gather outside Stormont.
Image: Niall Carson/PA Wire/PA Images

PRO-CHOICE ACTIVISTS in Northern Ireland have warned the government that it must ensure conscientious objection provisions mirror those in the rest of the UK when new abortion laws are introduced next year, ahead of an upcoming consultation to which churches are expected to contribute. 

Since 22 October, abortion in the North has been decriminalised – a major change to what was once the strictest abortion regime in the UK. 

The change was a result of action by British parliamentarians, who bypassed the Northern Ireland Assembly – which has not sat for nearly three years – to legalise same-sex marriage and decriminalise abortion. 

The UK government is now due to consult with the public on what form new abortion law in Northern Ireland should take.

It has already said that conscientious objection – which allows medical staff to refuse to participate in abortion procedures for moral or religious reasons – will be included in the new law. 

Guidance for healthcare staff, published in early October, confirmed that a “public consultation on a proposed legal framework for Northern Ireland will open on or shortly after 22 October 2019″. 

When contacted by TheJournal.ie, a spokesperson for the Northern Ireland Office said that the government would be launching a consultation in the “coming days”. 

“The government recognises there are a range of sensitive policy issues, such as conscientious objection, that will need to be carefully worked through, which is why the government will be consulting on the new proposed framework in the coming days,” the spokesperson said. 

However, this consultation has still not yet been launched. 

In October, Northern Ireland Office officials said that they would be consulting with religious organisations on conscientious objection regulations. 

Speaking to the Northern Irish Affairs committee in October, Chris Flatt, an official in the Northern Ireland Office, said: “There will be full provision in regulations to ensure we’ve got conscientious objection. Through the consultation process we’ll be talking to religious organisations and others to ensure that there is full processes within the new regulations to allow conscientious objection.”

“We will be having full conversations with religious organisations so they’re involved in discussions,” he said. 

It remains unclear whether conscientious objection provisions, similar to those in England and Wales, will be introduced to Northern Ireland after March. The Northern Ireland Office refused to rule out any divergence when contacted by TheJournal.ie. 

cabinet-meeting-london The Northern Ireland Office, headed up the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Julian Smith, has not said when a consultation on the new laws will begin. Source: Matt Crossick/Matt Crossick/Empics Entertainment

Under UK law, the scope of conscientious objection is limited to medical staff carrying out terminations or involved in an abortion procedure. Even where medical staff object to carrying out an abortion-related procedure, they still have an obligation to refer the patient onto a doctor who will treat them. 

Pro-choice activists say that the government is legally compelled to meet these obligations. 

In Ireland, medical staff are able to object to carrying out a termination based on religious or moral beliefs but must refer a patient to another doctor who will provide abortion services.

However, concerns have been raised that the full roll-out of abortion services in Ireland was prevented because of conscientious objections. 

TheJournal.ie contacted several religious organisations in Northern Ireland to determine whether they had been contacted by the Northern Ireland Office in relation to a consultation. 

A spokesperson for the Church of Ireland confirmed that it had not yet been contacted in relation to any consultation, while a spokesperson for the Presbyterian Church said it would “engage” with the consultation but did not say whether it had been formally contacted. 

The Methodist Church was unable to confirm whether it had been contacted. A spokesperson for the Catholic Church did not respond.

Last month, the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference said that “the freedom of conscience of healthcare professionals needs to be respected and they should never be required to lend their support to an action which conflicts with their commitment to uphold life”. 

The deadline to introduce a working legal framework for abortion in Northern Ireland is 31 March 2020.

The change to the law in Northern Ireland has been opposed by the DUP and the Ulster Unionist Party. 

Patrick Corrigan, the Director of Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland Office, said that they “expect conscientious objection in Northern Ireland to look very similar to the rest of the UK”. 

“Whatever may be said in the public consultation, the government will have to take account of the legal situation and legal requirements,” he said. 

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