In just five days, on 23 October, a cross-party coalition of MPs will propose a bill to Parliament to end the abortion ban in Northern Ireland. Whilst permitted in the UK, paradoxically, abortion is illegal in Northern Ireland.
This summer, the High Court ruled that this is in breach of human rights. There is now mounting pressure on politicians to act accordingly.
‘We cannot be left behind in a corner of the UK and on the island of Ireland as second-class citizens,’ says Grainne Teggart of Amnesty International.
Theresa May has attempted to ignore this issue. She reportedly said in a private meeting that the current political climate makes such reforms impossible. She also believes the issue should be resolved by the NI Assembly, which is currently in suspension.
To help make sense of the situation, is everything you need to know about the complexities of abortion rights in the UK and NI.
What is the UK law on abortion?
The 1967 Abortion Act legalised abortion in the UK.
What is the NI law on abortion?
Abortions in Northern Ireland are only permitted if the woman’s life or health (be it physical or mental) are at risk. The Eight Amendment in 1983 changed the Constitution of Ireland, recognising the equality of life between a pregnant woman and an unborn, thus, ensuring abortion is only permitted in extreme cases.
Rape is not a legal reason for abortion in NI, though such a traumatic experience has undoubted implications on a woman’s mental and physical health. Incest or foetal abnormalities are also not exemptions that would permit an abortion.
Why are the two different?
When the UK introduced the 1967 Act, Northern Ireland’s Parliament was still formulating its laws and ignored the new act.
Five years later, in 1972, the situation of NI changed, in that a new act led to provisions for a devolved Northern Ireland Assembly. This brought NI under more direct rule from Westminster, but the 1967 Act was still ignored.
Abortion policy was devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2010.
What are devolution and the NI Assembly?
Devolution gives Northern Ireland the power to legislate in a range of areas.
The NI Assembly sits in Belfast and comprises 108 members. It appoints Ministers to the NI Executive.
The Assembly, however, is currently in a period of suspension, following a collapse in January of last year. This creates for a unique situation as devolution only applies when there is a NI Executive.
Whether functioning or not, Grainne Teggart rightfully says, devolution ‘does not relieve the UK government of their responsibility to uphold human rights in Northern Ireland.’
What are the options for those who want an abortion?
Many travel to other parts of the UK for lawful abortions. Following a Labour-led campaign, in 2017, the UK government announced that women from Northern Ireland can get free NHS abortions in England.
Approximations vary but figures suggest some 900 women from NI had abortions in England and Wales in 2017.
Another option is abortion pills, which can be ordered online. This, however, is illegal across the UK.
(Recent measures have introduced home pills in Scotland and the same is due to occur in England by the end of the year. Women have to still collect the pills from a clinic, however, and only the second pill can be taken from home.)
What are the consequences of illegal abortions?
Penalties for unlawful abortions can be as extreme as life imprisonment.
In reality, however, judges have been more lenient. A number of sentences have been shortened. One nineteen year-old woman was given a three-month suspended sentence, i.e. no time behind bars.
This does not, however, guarantee that a life sentence cannot be applied. And any woman making a difficult decision regarding her own body should not be punished, her rights should be not suppressed.
What are the attitudes toward abortion in NI?
Unsurprisingly, religion plays a large role. Church attendance is not as high as in previous years, yet is still the highest in the UK. Thus, attitudes towards abortion can be conservative.
Out of the political parties in NI, only the Greens and Sinn Fein support abortion. The DUP is vehemently against it. The DUP is also key to sustaining Theresa May’s power. (Recently, however, DUP disagreements with May’s Brexit plan have revealed cracks in this support.)
Past social policies further paint a picture of a conservative public. Same-sex marriage is still illegal, though civil partnerships are permitted. Gay sex was decriminalised 15 years later than in England and Wales.
Nevertheless, public surveys indicate a more positive view. A recent poll has suggested 65% of adults in NI believe abortion should not be a crime. A poll in 2014 showed that 69% believed abortion should be legal in cases of rape, 68% believed the same for incest and 60% are in support if there is a fatal foetus abnormality.
Have attempts been made to legalise abortion in the past?
In 2008, a parliamentary move to extend the 1967 act to Northern Ireland was blocked by Harriet Harman, Leader of the Commons at the time.
In 2016, the NI Assembly voted against legalising abortion in cases of rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormality.
Why is there pressure now?
In June of this year, the UK Supreme Court ruled that the situation in Northern Ireland breached the European Convention on Human Rights.
A UN Committee also found that NI’s abortion law breaches the rights of women.
Such reports are not novel. In 2015, a High Court judge in NI ruled that NI’s abortion law breached human rights. No steps, however, were taken to change this.
This year’s reports have effectively put the needed pressure on government and politicians to bring NI in line with UK law. Also important has been the landslide referendum in the Republic of Ireland, which saw the public as overwhelmingly in support of abortion.
What can you do?
Amnesty is running a campaign focused on legalising abortion in Northern Ireland. Its website states,
‘The UK Government has the duty, the ability and the responsibility to bring an end to this cruel betrayal of women.
‘It’s time for them to step up.’
To support Amnesty’s campaign and the bill’s proposal on 23 October, you can send a letter to the Secretary of State here.