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10 October 2014

The criminal law on abortion: Lethal foetal abnormality and sexual crime

The criminal law on abortion: Lethal foetal abnormality and sexual crime

On 8 October, Justice Minister David Ford announced a consultation on the criminal law on abortion law in Northern Ireland. A change in the law has been proposed to allow for abortion in the cases of "lethal foetal abnormality" and views are sought on whether to allow abortion in cases involving sexual crime. There is also a proposal to allow for a conscience clause for medical practitioners.

We have written extensively in the past on the issue of abortion in Northern Ireland and a more detailed briefing on this consultation will follow shortly. For now it might be helpful to set out our broad approach to these issues:

  • Firstly, we acknowledge tragedy and respond with compassion. These are extremely sensitive and emotive issues that go right to the heart of humanity and brokenness. We clearly acknowledge that these two situations are tragic for everyone involved. We compassionately seek the wellbeing of each woman, family and unborn child.
  • The current law here strikes a very delicate balance between the health, life and wellbeing of the woman and the unborn child. It cherishes life, family and freedom in the context of community responsibility. We do not apologise for our laws or give credibility to the myth that Northern Ireland is backward and regressive because of them.
  • Women and their families. Our unique law affirms life, health and wellbeing, and our pregnancy crisis care should provide choices to women centred on these very same values. Practical compassion might look like a tailored pathway of care to support every woman who presents with a pregnancy crisis. Alongside this we need a system of perinatal hospice care for cases of babies with life-limiting disability.
  • Is the baby a human being? We believe this little life is a human being; a tiny family member who bears something of the image of God. We reflect this in our language. This pre-born child has intrinsic value and worth as a human being, a member of our race and community. As such, the child should be afforded both protection of life and human dignity.
  • Consistency. We acknowledge that opinion will vary across the public and within the Church. We seek to be clear and consistent in our policy approach for the wellbeing of all in society.
  • Human life should be protected from beginning to end. We consistently oppose direct action to end a human life prematurely. Society should be extremely careful not to facilitate premature death medically, legally or socially. From this consistent principle of life as a sacred gift not to be ended at our direction, we frame our opposition to assisted suicide and even murder. We make a clear distinction between palliative care and the alleviating of suffering through medicine on the one hand and medicine being used on the other to actively end a human life.
  • Human dignity should be afforded from beginning to end. We believe all life should be afforded human dignity. This is why we care for those who have been displaced, abused, raped, those who are in pregnancy crisis, orphaned, in care, disabled, those who have been trafficked, the sick and the elderly, the poor and homeless. Humanity has inherent value and dignity from the pre-born to the woman in a pregnancy crisis to the most elderly members of our society. Any devaluing or dehumanising of the most vulnerable members of our families and societies affects us all.
  • We believe that the law as it currently stands in Northern Ireland strikes a good balance. It holds the tension between individual freedom and social responsibility. It allows a woman's life to be saved where the act of saving her life may also result in the loss of her unborn child. The current law holds in tension the strands of protecting the life and health and dignity of women, the unborn child and the wider community as far as possible.
  • We believe that the consistency of protecting life and human dignity from beginning to end is rational and vital to robust legislation. This is not Christians trying to protect their beliefs or impose their views. This consistent approach strikes the balance between individual freedoms and social responsibility. This is 'social justice' and the balancing of rights, relationships and responsibilities. This principle of the state upholding human life and dignity is vital to a flourishing society.
  • When the principle of protecting life and dignity is removed in particular circumstances it becomes more difficult to argue against this principle medically, legally and morally in other circumstances. It may take time, but if the rationale is that a life is going to end anyway and an abortion is simply bringing forward the inevitable, then using the same logic it could be conceded that euthanasia be allowed in terminal cases. If we can end the life of a pre-born child then why not allow a rational autonomous adult to end their own life at a point of their choosing after they receive a terminal prognosis? If law and medicine will enable us to legally end the life of another human being, then why not our own? In Belgium law and medicine have 'progressed' to allow child euthanasia in cases where the child is terminally ill and suffering pain. Using the principle proposed in this law, of ending a life to show compassion to child and family, why oppose child euthanasia?
  • There are practical difficulties with both the proposed change to allow for abortion in cases of "lethal foetal abnormality" and with sexual crime. At the crux of our concern, over and above our objection to the deliberate ending of life, is the ability of legal or medical practice to contain abortion to these 'narrow' instances. Statistics in the UK demonstrate the difficulty of containing the law to narrow circumstances. Since the 1967 Act, there have been over seven million abortions in England and Wales. That's more than the population of Scotland and Northern Ireland combined. In 2011, in England and Wales there was 723,913 live births and 189,931 abortions, so for every four children born, one has been aborted. In contrast there were 50 abortions carried out in Northern Ireland last year. Even if you add the eight hundred women who travelled to Great Britain to have an abortion, the Northern Ireland abortion rate last year was about seven times lower than the abortion rate in the rest of the UK.
  • The proposed change would actively withdraw the existing protection for the pre-born child who is terminally ill and potentially those conceived through sexual crime.
  • Suffering is unfortunately part of life. As C.S Lewis writes: "Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free-wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself." Rather than prematurely ending life we choose to stand alongside those who hurt. We show solidarity and practical care for the sick and terminally ill, those who are traumatised or have been abused and those who are grieving. We do this in all other areas of life, why not especially in a pregnancy crisis?
  • Acts of violence and destruction lead to death not life. As people of redemption, life and hope, this is not a path we wish to take. Ending a life prematurely remains illegal in this country in all other circumstances, why remove this progressive protection from the pre-born child? We dare to believe in redemption. That suffering and grief over time and through relationship can give birth to hope and new life. That horrendous acts of sexual crime and brutality can somehow result in restoration and even a new life.

We acknowledge the sensitive and painful nature of the issues of sex crime and life-limiting disabilities. While committed to ensuring the best care and protection for the mother we also remain committed to protecting the life of the child. As mentioned above, more extensive and detailed briefing on the consultation will be presented soon. In the meantime please commit yourself to finding out more and to prayer.