The DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) in Northern Ireland has a new leader. Arlene Foster, the first woman leader of the party was unanimously elected last year and begins her new role this week. Of course, I wish Mrs Foster well as the leader, and will follow with interest to see how she sorts some of the social and moral issues with which the Northern Ireland legislature is faced.
While there may be a honeymoon period of sorts, Mrs Foster must show leadership in relation to her own party’s wide ranging views on issues such as same sex marriage and abortion. The latter is an area in which Mrs Foster has a responsibility to address with urgency. Indeed, Mrs Foster has the opportunity to help many women and girls in Northern Ireland who are faced with punitive abortion laws, developed in the 19th century.
Reform of Northern Ireland’s abortion law is urgent, not least following a landmark ruling last month which found the current abortion legislation to be in breach of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) by the High Court in Belfast.
Explaining his decision, Mr Justice Horner said he found the current law to be in breach of the ECHR because it does not allow abortion’s for women who become pregnant through rape or incest or as a result of a fatal foetal abnormality diagnosis.
Despite its unlawful abortion law the BBC reported that Mrs Foster would not be drawn on the issue: “Mrs Foster has reiterated the DUP’s opposition to same sex marriage and has declined to respond directly to questions about whether DUP MLAs might get a free vote on abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality,” its report said.
In another interview Mrs Foster said she opposed bringing Northern Ireland’s abortion law into line with the rest of the UK by extending the 1967 Abortion Act, which applies in England, Scotland and Wales, but would “consider carefully Mr Justice Horner’s judgement”.
Northern Ireland has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in any country within Europe, relating back to legislation from the 1861 Offences against a Person Act.
It is illegal in Northern Ireland for an abortion to be carried out, except when the life or mental health of the mother is in danger. Anyone who undergoes or performs an unlawful abortion could be jailed for life.
Mrs Foster may be looking forward to a settling in period but she has both an opportunity and obligation to improve the health care of women living in Northern Ireland by urgently addressing this unlawful and punitive piece of legislation.