High Court to hear challenge to abortion services in NI

A legal challenge is to be heard to a move by Northern Ireland Secretary of State Brandon Lewis to press Stormont to formally roll out abortion services in Northern Ireland.

The region’s once-strict abortion laws were liberalised in 2019 following legislation passed by Westminster at a time when devolution had collapsed.

However, Stormont’s Department of Health has yet to centrally commission full services due to an impasse within the devolved administration.

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has blocked consideration of central commissioning at the Stormont Executive.

This led to the British government introducing new powers to allow Mr Lewis to intervene on the devolved issue to formally direct Stormont to roll out the services.

He has used the new powers to direct ministers in Belfast to take the steps necessary to deploy abortion services across the region, with a deadline of the end of March 2022.

Today, the High Court in Belfast will hear a legal challenge to this move.

The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) is seeking a judicial review of regulations introduced earlier this year.

They contend that Mr Lewis exceeded his legal authority when he granted himself an unprecedented level of control over abortion policy in Northern Ireland.

The SPUC will be represented in court by John Larkin QC, the former Northern Ireland Attorney General.

Liam Gibson, SPUC’s policy and legal officer, accused Mr Lewis of “advancing his abortion agenda in any way he sees fit regardless of what the people of Northern Ireland think”.

“In 2019, while the Stormont Executive was not functioning, Westminster imposed the most radical abortion law in Europe on Northern Ireland. That law would never have secured a majority in the Stormont Assembly and a large section of the public remains steadfastly opposed to its implementation.

“Instead of acknowledging this, Mr Lewis is trying to seize control over abortion policy by stripping locally elected ministers of any say on the matter.”

Mr Gibson also contended that Mr Lewis’s actions were incompatible with the terms of the Belfast Agreement.

“Not only will it condemn to death an untold number of unborn babies, but it’s also a gross abuse of political power,” he said.

“The Northern Ireland Office’s high-handed attitude threatens to inflict a fatal blow on the devolution settlement as well.

“These regulations give an unprecedented level of power to a politician who is not answerable to the people of Northern Ireland.

“It is a basic principle of democracy that politicians are accountable to the electorate. Westminster has shown nothing but disdain for the views of the people of Northern Ireland and contempt for the lives of our unborn children.

“By supporting our legal action, people will be speaking out against these illegitimate and unconstitutional regulations. They will also be giving a voice to the thousands of innocent children whose lives will be lost if Brandon Lewis gets away with this power grab.

“We’re also calling on men and women from all political backgrounds, faiths and traditions who value devolution to join us in calling on the Westminster government to stop dictating and start listening.”

A UK Government spokesperson said: “We are committed to upholding the rights of women and girls in Northern Ireland to ensure that they have safe and lawful access to local, high-quality abortion services.

“It is unacceptable that women and girls continue to be denied the same rights as women in the rest of the United Kingdom.

“Parliament clearly decided that a safe, local and accessible abortion service must be implemented in Northern Ireland. The devolution settlement does not absolve us of our responsibility to uphold the rights of women and girls.”

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