Abortion - one of the most contentious and controversial issues of our time, and one which divides many opinions has been discussed at length at a recent council meeting.
Under current law, abortion is only permitted in Northern Ireland if a woman's life is at risk or if there is a risk of permanent and serious damage to her mental or physical health if the pregnancy continues.
Rape, incest or diagnoses of fatal fetal abnormality - where medics believe that a baby will die before, during or shortly after birth - are not currently grounds for a legal termination of a baby in Northern Ireland.
However this is set to change if the Stormont Assembly is not sitting again before Monday, October 21.
The abortion regime facing us in Northern Ireland therefore on October 22 removes protection in law for unborn children up until 24 weeks gestation, and possibly up to 28 weeks, at which time a baby can successfully live outside the womb.
The new rules will allow late term abortion for any reason and abortion based on gender preference will also be legalised here.
Abortion will also be legalised if a baby is thought to have a disability such as Down’s syndrome or cleft lip and a parent can decide to abort one or more baby in a multiple pregnancy selecting one to live and the other(s) to die.
In what are set to be some of the most relaxed abortion rules in the world, it will also be legal in Northern Ireland to have a late term abortion where no pain relief would be given to the baby, even though in England and Wales, the Department of Health has recently confirmed that pain relief is being given to babies with spina bifida undergoing surgery in the womb from 20-26 weeks.
Mid and East Antrim Council have weighed into the debate, with a notice of motion put forward by the DUP regretting the imposition of these new proposed abortion laws.
The motion, proposed by DUP Councillor William McCaughey and seconded by DUP Councillor Cheryl Johnston reads: 'Council regrets the recent amendment of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill in Westminster to include the imposition of abortion to Northern Ireland.
‘Council deplores the misuse of parliamentary procedure to undermine devolution in Northern Ireland, and to frustrate the will of 64% of citizens who wish to see abortion legislated for in their local assembly.
‘Council notes that Northern Ireland's pre-existing abortion laws have saved an estimated 100,000 lives since 1967. By way of contrast, the 1967 Abortion Act has resulted in the deaths of almost nine million unborn children in England and Wales, including 205,295 last year alone.
‘Council asserts that the act of abortion violates the unborn's right to life, and to develop, as expressed by Article 6 of the united Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
‘Council calls upon Her Majesty's Government to respect the Devolution Settlement, and the wishes of the people of Northern Ireland, by repealing clause nine of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Act.’
Addressing Council in what can only be described as in a moving and emotional way, DUP Councillor McCaughey recalled his wife and himself’s very personal story about a miscarriage they suffered over 20 years ago.
He began by saying: “This is one of the most important issues that we in our time will deal with and one that history will look back on and judge us for it.”
Instead of going into facts and figures about abortion, he told his personal story, saying he hoped it would “challenge those who supported the abortion legislation to reconsider their support.”
Going into detail about the grave effects their miscarriage had on the McCaughey’s as individuals and a couple, he explained how they lost a baby after three months gestation saying they felt “loss, immeasurable pain, but most of all loss.”
He said that fatal fetal abnormality is one of the arguments used to bring abortion into Northern Ireland, but went on to relate another personal story about a family memory who was born with a life limiting condition. He explained he is today “living not what we would term a normal life but what is very much a normal life to him.”
He continued: “If this abortion act is forced upon us then it is my belief it will be used to remove children who may be born with a genetic condition, missing a chromosome or even a simple deformity from our society.”
Cllr McCaughey went on to explain how he and his wife have adopted their two daughters, and spoke of the joy they bring the couple.
Then, speaking about unwanted pregnancy through incest and rape, he said: “These are two of the most heinous crimes.
“But there is always another way, a more compassionate and caring way than abortion as the solution. There are hundreds of couples like us out there who are willing to be loving parents to children.”
Closing his remarks, the DUP Councillor said “I cannot bring myself to believe that there is any mother, father, grandmother or grandfather sitting in this chamber who would welcome this horrendous abortion act, allowing termination up to 28 weeks, nor can I bring myself to believe that those fighting for abortion is what they wanted.
“I see none more vulnerable in the world than those still in the womb.”
Receiving a round of applause, Cllr McCaughey commended his motion to the chamber.
Seconding the motion, Councillor Cheryl Johnston said: “There is no doubt this topic goes far beyond reciting statistics, this is far more than data - this is about life, something that is so precious to us all.”
She went on to explain that at 28 weeks, a baby in the womb is about 37.6cm long from head to heal and weighs about 1kg. The baby also has eyelashes and can produce tears.
She said it was a ‘very sad change’ for the country and that it would be the most radical abortion regime in Western Europe.
She also added there was a need for government to assist with help for women and for mothers to help with child care and re-integration back into the workplace.
TUV Councillor Matthew Armstrong commended Councillor McCaughey’s courage for telling his story, adding: “The reckless watering down of current legislation devalues the very sanctity of human life and the right to life of the unborn.”
He referred to a letter recently penned by the Presbytery of Ballymena, in which they stated that the unborn are ‘fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God’.
Speaking with a different view, Alliance Councillor Patricia O’Lynn said she was personally opposed to the motion.
She said the Stormont Assembly had failed the public as the issue of “Irish language was more important than education, healthcare and the termination of unwanted pregnancies.”
She stated that in her experience the decision to terminate a pregnancy was never taken lightly, adding that some women take ‘desperate and dangerous risks’ to terminate their pregnancies. She said these women deserve ‘our compassion.’
Speaking about healthcare professionals, she reminded Council that no-one would be made to carry out terminations if they had a moral objection to it.
DUP Alderman Paul Reid said that this was his second term in the chamber but acknowledged this was “one of the most important debates I’ve spoken on.”
He went on to say: “We do not have the right to play God or state who lives or dies.
“If the law is passed later this month it will be sad and a very dark day for Northern Ireland.”
He ended his remarks by claiming that ‘abortion is wrong, and it is contrary to the teaching of the word of God.’
SDLP Councillor Eugene Reid said it had been a failure of devolution that led us to this point.
He pointed out that ‘social services should provide more support for women in crisis pregnancy.’
He added: “We must ensure that women are not pushed toward aborting a pregnancy through lack of support.”
He proposed an amendment that would read: ‘This council expresses it’s deep concern at the decision by Westminster to extend the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland against the wishes of the people of NI and their elected representatives.
‘It notes the sensitivity and complexity of this issue and acknowledges the need for sensitive consideration that deals with difficult cases and offers support to women in crisis pregnancies and instructs the chief executive to write to the secretary of state saying that no legislative changes on abortion be considered until the Northern Ireland Assembly be restored.’
DUP Alderman John Carson revealed that he was the ‘proud uncle of twins born at 26 weeks.’
He said that under this new legislation these twins would have been below the threshold for abortion, but they survived and are now at university.
Ald Carson added: “What God condemns, I dare not condone. God condemns murder.”
DUP Councillor Marc Collins told the chamber he was ‘pro-life.’
He added: “100,000 people are alive here today because Northern Ireland decided not to enact the 1967 Abortion Act,” which he added was equivalent to approximately 5% of the population of the province today.
DUP Alderman Tommy Nicholl agreed that it was an ‘emotive subject.’
He said it was ‘disgusting’ that the people of Northern Ireland had not been asked for their opinion on the issue. He further called on every Councillor to ‘search their conscience’ and to think of the unborn child and also of the mother.
UUP Councillor Keith Turner pointed out that no matter what the outcome of the vote, it would not “make one jot of difference if the DUP and Sinn Fein refuse to form an executive in Stormont before October 21, then the Westminster government will bring in legislation on the abortion law and we’ll see abortion decriminalised.”
He added he was ‘predominantly pro life’ and that he had ‘agonised over this motion because I am also pro-choice.’
He called for help and support for women who do have abortions. He then seconded Cllr Reid's amendment.
Cllr Ian Friary of Sinn Fein also put forward an amendment to the motion saying that there is need for reform to current law which is ‘incompatible to the human rights legislation.’
He added that Sinn Fein supported legislative change for the provision of ‘appropriate, modern and compassionate health services for women across the island.’
He outlined the party’s position that abortion should be available where a women’s life, health and mental health is at risk and in the case of fatal fetal abnormality and in the case of rape or sexual abuse.
UUP Councillor John McDermott controversially joined in saying that to bring the motion now was ‘a political stunt on behalf of the Democratic Unionist Party.’
He stated he was a pro-life supporter, saying the life of a child whether it be inside or outside the womb is ‘the most precious thing in the world’, but he added he was disappointed this was “brought by DUP councillors in an attempt to deflect the blame for the situation in which the DUP in Stormont refuse to deal with.”
He added that despite their protests, “it was the DUP who allowed the government to legislate and legalise the killing of babies in the womb.”
He added the move: “Stinks of hypocrisy and political opportunism” and further asked if a pharmacy run by the DUP member provided the morning after pill.
Alliance Councillor Jane Burnside acknowledged that abortion law needed to be reformed but said she didn’t think it should be allowed up to 28 weeks or as a method of contraception. She said she’d be supporting the motion.
TUV Councillor Timothy Gaston acknowledged his political difference with the DUP, but added: “the political football we’ve heard against them is unwarranted and I think out of order.
“Abortion is more important than politics.” He added that Councillor McDermott’s comments were ‘out of order’ and that he should ‘be ashamed of himself.’
He added: “Keeping abortion out of Northern Ireland is more important than sticking the boot in the DUP.”
Cllr Gaston asked where the freedom of choice was for the unborn and said ‘abortion in general is the most inhumane act and it is murder in the womb.’
DUP Councillor Andrew Clarke spoke in depth about the cruel nature of abortion and shared the example of his nephew, Wilfred who was born at 27 weeks saying while he was fighting for life, down the corridor in the hospital others like Wilfred were being killed.
Cllr Clarke said: “This legislation would unleash the most extreme, vicious and brutal abortion regime in all of Europe.”
Talking about the progressive nature of the Netherlands he revealed “prostitution is fully legalised, you can go off your head on drugs, you can bump off your elderly granny if she’s an inconvenience - it’s a progressive paradise.
“But even there you cannot abort your child at 28 weeks, it rarely happens beyond 22 weeks, because at that point we have a child who can survive outside the womb.”
Referring to gender select abortion, he said it ‘angered’ him, adding “we are saying to our daughters that when they are at their most vulnerable you are on your own. It is institutionalised misogyny, it is disgraceful and it will not be in my name.”
DUP Deputy Mayor Beth Adger also spoke in support of the motion, talking about her large family made from her biological and adoptive children, saying she was a ‘proud mum.’
Concluding the debate, Councillor McCaughey said he didn’t bring the motion as a political stunt.
He added: “The troubles took 30 years to remove more than 3,000 of our citizens from our streets, but if this act becomes law in Northern Ireland the statistics show that we will remove twice that number of our children every year.”
He said the DUP would go into Stormont tomorrow to defend these children.
After voting, both amendments to the motion were defeated, however the original motion passed by 26 votes for, six against and one abstention.
The DUP, TUV and UUP in their entirety voted in support of the motion as did independent Councillor James Henry.
Sinn Fein councillors James McKeown and Ian Friary voted against the motion, as did Alliance party members, apart from Alliance Councillor Jane Burnside, who voted for it.
Independent Councillor Bobby Hadden abstained.
The motion was passed followed by a round of applause in the chamber.