Abortion is still illegal in Northern Ireland – but that could change. Here’s everything you need to know.
Earlier this year, the Republic of Ireland voted in a landslide to legalise abortion. Immediately after the historic referendum on the eighth amendment, attention turned to abortion laws in Northern Ireland, which – despite being part of the UK – has some of the harshest restrictions on reproductive rights in Europe.
Women in Northern Ireland are currently only allowed to have abortions if doctors believe their mental or physical health would be seriously or permanently harmed if they continued with a pregnancy. Shockingly, terminations are generally banned even in cases of rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormalities: in 2016/17, just 13 legal procedures took place across the whole of Northern Ireland. (For context, more than 190,000 abortions were carried out in England and Wales in the same time period.)
Inevitably, however, Northern Ireland’s strict laws don’t mean that women aren’t having abortions. More than 900 women travelled from Northern Ireland to England for abortions in 2017, according to the Department of Health, and many Northern Irish women also resort to ordering illegal abortion pills online.
The official line of Theresa May’s government is that abortion in Northern Ireland is a “devolved issue”. In other words, it’s not up to Westminster to force the government in Stormont to change its laws.
But since the Irish referendum, pressure has been building on No 10 to give women in Northern Ireland control over their own bodies, just like we have elsewhere in the UK. New research by Amnesty International shows that 66% of people in Northern Ireland and three-quarters people in the UK as a whole think May’s government should intervene to reform the law – an overwhelming sign that the time is ripe for change.
The saga is complex and ongoing, but below we’ve rounded up all the key details and developments you need to know about – including how you can help put pressure on politicians to change the law.
Why is Northern Ireland’s abortion law so different to the rest of the UK’s?
Abortion is still technically a criminal offence everywhere in the UK, under sections 58 and 59 of a Victorian-era law called the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. The act states that any woman who attempts to “procure her own miscarriage” is liable to be “kept in penal servitude for life”, and anyone who supplies or procures tools or medication for abortion can also be jailed.
More than a century after that law was passed, women in England, Scotland and Wales were given the right to abortion up to 24 weeks under the Abortion Act 1967. But the government never tried to extend the Abortion Act to deeply religious Northern Ireland, partly due to fears that attempts to legalise abortion would disrupt an already-volatile political climate. Politicians also believed that many Northern Irish medics would refuse to perform terminations on moral or religious grounds.
In 1998, 30 years of violence in Northern Ireland – known as the Troubles – were brought to an end by the Good Friday Agreement, which formally recognised Northern Ireland as part of the UK. However, the treaty also established that the country would be run by its own devolved government, the Northern Ireland Assembly, without any interference from Westminster.
That’s how things have worked ever since – which partially explains why Theresa May is cautious about reforming Northern Irish laws. And which brings us onto our next point…
Why are some politicians in Westminster so reluctant to get involved in Northern Irish politics?
As noted, the government’s official line (per Northern Ireland secretary Karen Bradley) is that “the people of Northern Ireland [should] have their say on the devolved issues which affect their daily lives”.
The problem is, there hasn’t actually been a fully functioning devolved Northern Irish government for over 18 months. In January 2017, Sinn Fein withdrew from a coalition government with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), saying it was not being treated as an equal partner.
This would make it impossible for the DUP to change Northern Ireland’s abortion law even if it wanted to. And of course, the DUP doesn’t want to. The right-wing party has long opposed abortion reform, and leader Arlene Foster has doubled down on this stance since the Irish referendum.
May’s Conservative government is currently being propped up by the DUP, and some critics believe this is influencing her unwillingness to force the issue.
Are MPs doing anything to change abortion laws in Northern Ireland?
Yes. Politicians from all of the major parties in England, Scotland and Wales are putting pressure on the government to decriminalise abortion in Northern Ireland.
In May, a cross-party group of around 160 MPs backed a letter by Labour MP Stella Creasy in which she called for a vote on the subject. Creasy wants to instigate by tabling an amendment to the upcoming Domestic Abuse Bill, which is expected to change how the government handles domestic abuse.
On 28 September, Conservative MPs Anna Soubry, Nicky Morgan and Huw Merriman travelled to Belfast for meetings with women, midwives, doctors, local political parties and legal professionals to discuss abortion law reform.
And on 10 October, Labour MP Diana Johnson launched a private members’ bill in Westminster that would decriminalise consensual abortion in England, Wales and Northern Ireland by repealing sections 58 and 59 of the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act. The bill will be introduced in the Commons on 23 October.
“Women who have abortions are not criminals and the law should not treat them as such,” said Johnson in a statement.
Do Northern Irish politicians want the law to change?
Outside of the DUP, yes. In September, representatives of Northern Irish political parties Sinn Fein, Alliance Party, UUP and SDLP issued a joint statement calling for Westminster to intervene to decriminalise abortion.
“Northern Ireland has been without government since January 2017, we are concerned about the harm being caused to women living under the existing Victorian era legislation which makes abortion illegal in almost every circumstance,” the statement read.
“We agree with the recent ruling of the UK Supreme Court that abortion law in Northern Ireland is in need of radical reconsideration.
“We call on UK Government to decriminalise abortion by repealing sections 58 and 59 of the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act and to ensure a human rights compliant framework governing access to abortion.”
What happened with the Supreme Court case?
In June, the UK Supreme Court rejected a case that sought to declare Northern Ireland’s abortion law as incompatible with the UK’s human rights commitments.
The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) wanted the Supreme Court to rule that the country’s abortion legislation violated the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR). But while the majority of Supreme Court judges agreed that this was the case, they said they couldn’t issue a formal declaration of incompatibility – as the NIHRC itself was not a ‘victim’ of any unlawful act.
Now, a Belfast woman who was forced to leave Northern Ireland for an abortion is taking a human rights case to the Belfast High Court. Sarah Ewart had to travel to England to terminate a pregnancy five years ago, after she was told her baby would not survive.
The Belfast High Court is expected to announce whether or not it will hear Ewart’s case later this autumn. If it agrees to hear her case and then rules that Northern Ireland’s abortion law violated Ewart’s human rights under the ECHR, responsibility may fall on Westminster to intervene.
What can I do to help change Northern Ireland’s abortion law?
Lots of things. The pro-choice campaign group Alliance for Choice is asking its supporters to write to women and equalities minister Penny Mordaunt at the above address, calling on her to act. Before you send your letter, share a photo of it on Instagram and Twitter using the hashtag #PennyPost to encourage your followers to do the same.
You can also write to your local MP to ask them to support the private members’ bill launched by Diana Johnson on 10 October, keep an eye out for planned marches and protests in your area, and add your name to Amnesty International’s petition.
“We’ll be running a Write For Rights campaign in November and December where people can write letters of support and solidarity to women in Northern Ireland who have suffered under the law,” says Amnesty UK’s Ella Berny.
“This will help put pressure for reform because the more letters we have sent, the more politicians will take note of the campaign.”
We’ll keep you updated on developments as they happen.
Additional research: Miriam Balanescu. Images: Getty Images / Alliance for Choice