A group of British-Irish politicians have called for a citizens' assembly to help decide Northern Ireland's abortion law
The DUP has claimed that the Northern Irish assembly - which has not functioned for two and a half years - could be "diminished" by a citizens' assembly.
The British Irish Parliamentary Assembly - which includes politicians from the UK, Irish, Northern Irish, Scottish and Welsh governments - set up a review of abortion policy across UK and Ireland.
Its final report was shared with politicians on Monday, the day before abortion was decriminalised in Northern Ireland after 158 years of it being a criminal offence punishable by life in prison. The major change came from a law passed at Westminster. Up until now, abortion has only been available in Northern Ireland when the life and health of the woman is at serious risk.
From midnight on Monday, abortion was decriminalised in the north. Between now and March, women in Northern Ireland who need to access abortion will have their flights, accommodation and the cost of an abortion in Britain covered by the UK government. Any woman who accesses an abortion with pills bought online will be able to go to a hospital if she experiences complications, without worrying about being arrested.
From March, it is expected that free access to abortion will be available in Northern Ireland. The UK government is setting up a public consultation to decide what kind of abortion regulations will be put in place.
The BIPA report on abortion policy, seen by JOE, examined the issue of abortion law in Northern Ireland. The report said that BIPA had seen "convincing evidence" of the value of a citizens' assembly, which had led to Ireland's referendum on abortion in 2018.
"We therefore recommend the citizens' assembly process as a potentially instructive model for engaging the [Northern Irish] public in this important debate," the report said.
In the Irish citizens' assembly, 99 members of the public considered legal, medical and ethical evidence before recommending free access to abortion up to 12 weeks. This eventually became law in Ireland after the public voted to repeal the Eighth Amendment.
The report said that those in favour of the north's law being reformed had argued that the near-ban on abortion "has meant that in the past the issue was, in effect, exported to Great Britain for a solution."
At least three women and one man have faced prosecution in Northern Ireland for buying abortion pills since 2013. The BIPA report said any criminal case on abortion taken against women which was likely to have a negative effect on her health and well-being "would amount to an abrogation of their human rights." The report said that it would be the UK government's responsibility to protect those women's rights.
The BIPA report said that cross-border issues on abortion access will exist with or without a functioning Northern Irish assembly, but reinstating the assembly would give the people and "particularly the women" of Northern Ireland a greater role in discussing the issue.
"The current stasis in unacceptable when women's health and wellbeing are at risk," it said.
The BIPA also considered abortion law in the rest of the UK, and Ireland. It said that differences in abortion laws meant that some women would continue to take abortion pills bought online, without medical supervision. While women can't be prosecuted for taking the pills on the island of Ireland, it is still criminalised in Scotland, Wales and England. While a woman can't be prosecuted for taking abortion pills in Ireland, a friend or family member who helps her to access them could be.
The report said that information on the legal and medical consequences of taking the pills should be made available across all jurisdictions.
It also called on relevant governments to collect information on how many marginalised women are travelling from the island of Ireland for abortion access. The report said there may still be women travelling from Ireland to the UK, if they are more than 12 weeks' pregnant and need to access an abortion. It also said there should be specific information on the rights of women to bring home foetal remains after travelling for a termination for medical reasons. The report said that "border agencies should ensure that women and their families who travel with remains should be treated with dignity."
The report was discussed at a BIPA meeting on Monday. Paul Givan, the DUP MLA and member of BIPA, was not present. On Monday, DUP showed up to Stormont for the first time since its collapse in 2017 in opposition to the abortion reform.
The report contained an "alternative view" from Mr Givan, who suggested that the five months before new abortion regulations being introduced in the north could lead to "backstreet abortion" being legalised in Northern Ireland.
Mr Givan said that while there were arguments in favour of a citizens' assembly, setting one up on Northern Ireland's laws would suggest there was "a problem to be solved." He also suggested a citizens' assembly could diminish the Northern Irish assembly. The Northern Irish assembly hasn't sat in over 1,000 days.
Mr Givan also said that even if a court declared that not having free access to abortion available in Northern Ireland was a breach of human rights, the court decision would not force Stormont to legalise the procedure.