A WAR of words has erupted between two Mid-Ulster MLAs over a proposed change to abortion laws here.
DUP Assembly member Ian McCrea hit at Ulster Unionist Sandra Overend after she voted against a jointly proposed amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill that, if passed, would ban abortions being performed by unregulated private clinics.
The attempt to outlaw private clinics like Marie Stopes was defeated in the Assembly earlier this month, after the joint amendment was put forward by the DUP and the SDLP.
Following the debate, Mr McCrea released a statement in which he said he was “completely shocked” that the UUP MLA voted against the amendment.
Mrs Overend later hit back at his statement, calling his comments “petty party politicking”.
Speaking earlier this week Ian McCrea said: “It came as no surprise that the moral compass of Sinn Fein lost its way significantly in this matter and ultimately caused the amendment to fail, however I was completely shocked that Sandra Overend MLA, who has been the UUP’s spokesperson on children and young people, voted against the inclusion of the amendment and ensured that private clinics like Marie Stopes will remain unregulated and therefore could open the door for abortions being carried out without accountability.”
He added: “I make no apology in voting in support of the amendment and will continue to lobby to ensure that any abortions that are carried out in Northern Ireland are done so completely within the law as set out in sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 and section 25 of the Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1945 which reflects, to this very day, the values of our society, which is a society that upholds the sanctity of human life and affirms the most basic, fundamental human right of all — the right to life.”
Sinn Fein, backed by Green Party MLA Steven Agnew and Alliance’s Anna Lo, tabled a ‘petition of concern’ over the amendment, a mechanism requiring the proposal to have majority support among both nationalists and unionists.
After a five-hour debate, 93 of 108 members voted – 53 in favour and 40 against.
As it did not reach the cross-community threshold, the amendment fell.
Defending her decision to vote against the amendment, Sandra said: “I want to clarify that I do not support opening up abortion on demand.
“I support women being given advice and information to ensure that they are equipped to make informed, rational decisions at very difficult and demanding times in their lives.
She added: “I want to ensure that women are offered safe, legal options, here in Northern Ireland, rather than being forced to seek illegal, backstreet medical procedures; or being forced to flee Northern Ireland to go to England to find legal medical measures, as thousands do each year.
“It is my opinion that this is an issue that is best dealt with by the Minister of Health, Ian McCrea’s own DUP colleague.
“As such, I feel that seeking to amend the law through a Criminal Justice Bill was, in itself, intrinsically flawed.
“Indeed, the Amendment was made somewhat redundant by the Draft Guidelines on the law surrounding abortion issued by Minister for Health, DUP MLA Edwin Poots, which will seek to clarify the legal position for Northern Ireland. That is a measure which is much more effective than an ill thought out and rushed amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill.”
Mrs Overend called on the DUP MLA to add his voice to calling on the Health Minister to provide “clear and concise guidelines” on abortion laws and bring forward legislation to regulate independent health clinics.
She concluded: “This is clearly a cheap shot by McCrea, in an attempt at petty party politicking without understanding the issue and its importance to women across Northern Ireland.
“The DUP/SDLP Amendment has been misrepresented as a pro/anti-abortion vote, which it clearly was not.
“The people of Mid-Ulster can be assured that I gave careful consideration to the actual clauses in the Amendment, and the effect that their implementation would have and made the decision to vote against this amendment, contrary to the disingenuous comments made by Ian McCrea.”