Guest post: The Abortion Act was considered “religiously sensitive”

Originally a comment by Bernard Hurley on Too bad for her she lived in Belfast.

While the influence of the Catholic Church needs to be taken into account the situation in Northern Ireland is far more complex than than you suggest. NI is a sort of dual-theocracy. Members of the NI parliament who wish to be part of government must declare themselves to be either Nationalist or Unionist – in practice code for Catholic or Protestant – and the NI cabinet balanced to make it contain equal numbers of each. The NI parliament is about 52% Unionist (Protestant), 40% Nationalist (Catholic) with the other 8% undeclared. But it gets a bit confusing because, for instance, the Progressive Unionist Party is non-sectarian and its members do not declare themselves to be Unionist.

While the Nationalists in the NI parliament would no doubt oppose repealing Section 58 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, the Unionists have a built in majority and could easily push through such legistlation if they wished. But they do not wish because most Unionist politicians are fundamentalists of some stripe and are also anti-abortion.

As I understand it the situation is as follows: Section 58 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 has not been repealed anywhere in the UK, however the Abortion Act 1967 takes precedence over it which has the same effect. But the Abortion Act was considered “religiously sensitive” and so, while it is part of English, Welsh and Scottish law, Northern Ireland was deliberately exempted from its provisions.

It gets even more bizarre than that, however. Section 58 of the Offences against the Person Act has been declared to contrary to the Human Rights Act by the UK Supreme Court. An outsider might be forgiven for thinking this would render it null and void, but it doesn’t. What this ruling does do is to make the issue the responsibility of the Westminter parliament, since according to the Good Friday agreement, this ruling gives the that parliament the right to strike down the legislation. This has not been done, presumably in deference to religious sensitivities, although politicians would probably plead lack of parliamentary time.

After 30 years of sectarian violence in Ulster in the last century, it is understandable that politicians might want to tiptoe around religious issues. But there is a price to be paid for this and it is people like this unfortunate young lady who end up paying the price.

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