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Artillery Row

Boris’s baby problem

Why does the government want so much abortion in Ulster?

At PMQs yesterday, Jeremy Corbyn congratulated the Prime Minister on the news his girlfriend is pregnant. But Boris Johnson, a man who famously refused to say how many children he has, has a problematic relationship with babies, especially before they are born.

During a leadership hustings between Boris Johnson and his rival Jeremy Hunt last year, Johnson confirmed to a disappointed audience member that he still believed in the right to abort a baby. By contrast, Jeremy Hunt had said previously he favoured halving the legal time limit for abortions from 24 to 12 weeks.

This is something worth noticing, as it’s that rare thing: an entirely consistent Boris Johnson view, which he’s also unlikely to change any time soon. But Mr. Johnson is hugely out of step with public opinion on this issue. In 2017 a ComRes poll conducted in Britain revealed 70% of women would like the current time limit for abortion to be lowered and 70% of parents want the introduction of parental consent for girls 15 and under to get abortions.

It’s unsurprising that he’s not for turning. Back in 2004 the Mail on Sunday claimed Boris Johnson’s mistress, Spectator columnist Petronella Wyatt had two abortions, the last one paid for by Johnson whilst he was Conservative arts spokesman and party vice-chairman. He was subsequently sacked from his front-bench role by Tory leader Michael Howard for lying about it.

But is Boris Johnson’s social liberalism going too far?

In 2016 before it was collapsed by Sinn Fein withdrawing from the Executive, the Northern Ireland assembly voted against legalising abortion in cases where doctors believe the unborn child has a terminal condition and will die in the womb or shortly after birth. Polling from 2018 revealed 66 per cent of women in Northern Ireland do not think Westminster should be interfering with abortion law in the province.

Despite this, in July 2019 an amendment proposed by Labour MP Stella Creasy was added to the Northern Ireland Executive Formation Act which required the Westminster government to introduce a limited legalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland. The amendment was permitted despite it not being related to the Bill, at a time when Commons Speaker John Bercow had abandoned all neutrality in pursuit of embarrassing and frustrating the government.

The huge majority won at the last election was a chance for the pro-devolution, Belfast Agreement-respecting Conservative and Unionist Party to redress this Act of Bercow. But rather than repealing the legislation and allowing Stormont to decide, the government is now pushing much further than the law requires.

The Act requires provision for women to have abortions if there is a threat to physical or mental health, if the baby has a life limiting disability or in the case of rape and incest. However, the plans the government have released go much further, with a consultation suggesting they are planning to effectively legalise abortion on demand for any reason up to either 22 or 24 weeks.

Nicola Woods, the mother of a seven-year-old Belfast boy with Down’s syndrome, is one of more than 1,000 people who have signed an open letter to Mr Johnson calling on him to rethink the plans. The consultation the government have opened for Northern Ireland suggest the abortion framework there is to be governed by medical regulations, rather than legal regulations, leaving it wide open to abuse. The law on abortion in England and Wales is governed by legal regulations, an idea backed by 72% of the public. This means doctors can, in theory, be prosecuted if they do not follow the correct provisions.

Pro-life campaign group Right to Life have confirmed they are planning legal action if the current suggestions are implemented. Lawyers acting on behalf of the group have already sent a pre-action notice to Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis which warns that if the final abortion framework goes further than the Government is legally required to introduce, they will challenge the move with a judicial review.

It’s an interesting question to ask why a so-called Conservative government is relishing the chance to drastically increase the scope of abortion in Northern Ireland, in direct violation of the devolved consent the Belfast Agreement settlement is supposed to rest upon. Perhaps there’s a good reason, but neither Brandon Lewis nor Boris Johnson has spelt it out yet. I wouldn’t hold your breath waiting.

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