A pro-life group said on Tuesday that it is “ready to go to court within hours” over the commissioning of abortion services in Northern Ireland.
The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) indicated on July 20 that it was prepared to take legal action if the U.K. government took a further step to expand abortion services in the region.
Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis is expected to make an announcement on July 22.
SPUC is currently seeking a judicial review of the implementation of abortion regulations approved by the Westminster parliament during the absence of devolution.
“The legal action is scheduled to take place in October, but SPUC, the world’s oldest pro-life group, is ready to go to court within hours in a bid to stop Mr. Lewis from issuing directions before the case can be heard,” the pro-life group said.
Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, but abortion law is considered to be a devolved issue under the control of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
But due to the suspension of the regional government, the British parliament in October 2019 decriminalized abortion in Northern Ireland and obliged the U.K. government to create legal access to abortion in the region.
Before March 31, 2020, abortion was legally permitted in Northern Ireland only if the mother’s life was at risk or if there was a risk of long-term or permanent, serious damage to mental or physical health.
Northern Ireland’s abortion law now allows elective abortions up to 12 weeks of pregnancy. Abortions up to 24 weeks are legal when the mother’s physical or mental health is determined to be at risk. Abortions up until the point of birth are legal in cases of severe fetal impairment or fetal abnormality.
In March 2021, the U.K. government signaled its intention to unveil new regulations enabling Lewis to direct the Northern Ireland Department of Health to commission more widespread abortion services — prompting criticism from Catholic bishops.
It set out the measures in a statutory instrument known as the Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2021. A statutory instrument is a form of secondary legislation allowing government ministers to legislate on day-to-day matters.
SPUC is seeking to have the regulations quashed, arguing that Lewis had no power to make them under the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019, which contained an amendment legalizing abortion in the region.
SPUC’s lawyers have written to Northern Ireland health minister Robin Swann urging him not to act on any direction from Lewis ahead of the judicial review.
Swann has said previously that he is unable to commission services centrally without the backing of the five-party coalition in the Northern Irish Assembly.
Although Northern Ireland’s Department of Health has not commissioned services centrally, local health trusts are offering abortions.
According to the Department of Health, 1,556 abortions have taken place in Northern Ireland since March 2020, when the law changed.
Liam Gibson, SPUC’s NI political officer, said: “If this power grab by the Westminster Government is allowed to stand it will condemn to death an untold number of unborn babies and also fatally undermine the devolution settlement.”
“London is stripping locally elected ministers of power and denying the people an accountable government with a democratic mandate.”
“The situation means that enormous powers have been vested in a politician who is not answerable to the people of Northern Ireland.”
John Deighan, SPUC’s deputy CEO, said: “These are the most challenging times the pro-life movement has ever faced in Northern Ireland.”
“We need the prayers of pro-life supporters and their financial assistance too as we seek to raise the funds required to finance these court cases.”