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What’s going on with Northern Ireland’s abortion laws (and how you can help)

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Moya Crockett
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Northern Ireland’s abortion laws are under intense scrutiny at the moment, thanks to a string of Commons votes, campaigns and court cases. Here’s everything you need to know – including how you can make a difference.

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 has some of the harshest restrictions on reproductive rights in Europe – despite being part of the UK.

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. 

For months, Theresa May’s government has maintained 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. On 23 October, an overwhelming majority of MPs voted in favour of decriminalising abortion in Northern Ireland by repealing a Victorian-era law.

Just two days later, MPs voted for a landmark amendment that will force Northern Ireland secretary Karen Bradley to formally explain how the government can continue to enforce the 1861 legislation that makes abortion illegal in the region.

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. 

What will happen now MPs have voted in favour of decriminalising abortion in Northern Ireland?

Protesters at a demonstration in support of more liberal abortion laws in Northern Ireland 

Unfortunately, not much in the short term – but the vote will ramp up the pressure on Theresa May to act. The backbench bill introduced by Labour MP Diana Johnson on 23 October called for a repeal of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, a 157-year-old law still in effect in Northern Ireland.

Sections 58 and 59 of the Act state 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. 

Women in England, Scotland and Wales were given the right to abortion up to 24 weeks under the Abortion Act 1967, which superseded the Offences Against the Person Act – but that same right was never extended to women in Northern Ireland

MPs voted by 208 to 123 in favour of scrapping those sections of the Act, including several Tory MPs who broke ranks with their party.

Johnson’s bill is unlikely to become law, as the government has so far refused to give it any parliamentary time. However, the MP for Hull said she hoped the results of the vote would show the Prime Minister that MPs want her to act on this issue.

“MPs have backed the first reading of the bill to decriminalise abortion in a landslide vote. This sends a clear message to the UK Government that it must act to change Northern Ireland’s inhumane abortion law,” said Grainne Teggart, Northern Ireland campaigns manager at Amnesty International.  

“This was a vote for the health, equality and rights of women in Northern Ireland. If the Government doesn’t give the Bill the parliamentary time it needs as it moves towards its second reading, it will be a huge betrayal.”

How else are politicians trying to liberalise Northern Ireland’s abortion laws? 

Labour MP Stella Creasy is championing the political campaign to change the UK’s abortion laws  

Several MPs are trying their best to get the government to act on this issue – but it hasn’t been easy. In a bid to relax abortion laws and legalise same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland, Labour MPs Stella Creasy and Conor McGinn attempted to table an amendment to a bill that was debated in Parliament on 24 October.

However, they were forced to withdraw the amendment after clerks at the House of Commons said it wasn’t relevant to the bill in question. Creasy and McGinn instead tabled a weakened amendment that required Northern Ireland secretary Karen Bradley to “issue guidance” explaining how officials can continue to enforce the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 when it is incompatible with the UK’s human rights commitments.

MPs voted 207 to 117 in favour of the amendment, meaning Bradley will now have to publicly account for the government’s position. While this victory is largely symbolic and won’t directly affect the law, it does add to the pressure on the Prime Minister to act. 

It’s not just Labour politicians who are pushing the government to act on this issue. Six Tories support Creasy and McGinn’s amendment, and Conservative MPs Anna Soubry, Nicky Morgan and Huw Merriman travelled to Belfast in September for meetings with women, midwives, doctors, local political parties and legal professionals to discuss abortion law reform.

Tory MPs Amber Rudd, Justine Greening, Maria Miller and Penny Mordaunt also want the law to be liberalised.  

What’s going on with the Belfast court case?

Sarah Ewart (centre) has vowed to keep fighting to overturn Northern Ireland’s law 

On 24 October, the Belfast High Court ruled that a Northern Irish woman has the right to challenge the country’s abortion laws through the courts. Sarah Ewart was forced to travel to England for a termination five years ago after her baby was diagnosed with a fatal foetal abnormality, and has been campaigning for a change in the law ever since.

Ewart says that her human rights were breached by Northern Ireland’s abortion legislation, under article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

The 28-year-old has now been granted leave to seek a judicial review of Northern Ireland’s health and justice departments. This should allow her to establish in court whether the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 and Northern Ireland’s Criminal Justice Act 1945 do actually violate the UK’s human rights commitments.

Ewart’s victory at the Belfast High Court comes four months after the UK Supreme Court rejected a different case that sought to declare Northern Ireland’s abortion law as incompatible with the ECHR. The court dismissed the case in June on a legal technicality, as it was brought by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) instead of a woman who had personally suffered as a result of the country’s abortion laws.

But in a highly unusual move, the majority of Supreme Court judges publicly agreed that Northern Ireland’s laws clash with women’s human rights – and indicated that if an individual woman had brought the same case as the NIHRC, they would have ruled in her favour. 

Why are some politicians in Westminster so reluctant to get involved in Northern Irish politics?

Prime Minister Theresa May and DUP leader Arlene Foster 

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. 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 – and the government’s official line is that it doesn’t want to attempt to change Northern Ireland’s laws from London. Per Northern Ireland secretary Karen Bradley: “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.

And May is keen not to rile up the DUP at the moment. Not only has her government been propped up by the party since last year’s general election, she needs the DUP to cooperate with her on key issues around Brexit and the Northern Irish border. Some critics believe this is influencing the Prime Minister’s unwillingness to force the issue of abortion rights.

Labour MP Stella Creasy said that the absence of a Northern Ireland Assembly “cannot be used an excuse to ignore the human rights of the people of Northern Ireland”.

“Theresa May keeps saying she agrees change is needed but then tries to reject her responsibilities in this matter and puts it back to the Assembly to act knowing it is incapable of doing so,” Creasy argued.

“The question is whether the Prime Minister is more concerned about the DUP than the damage human rights abuses do – the vote on Wednesday will give each of us the chance to show we stand for equal rights not just internationally but on our own doorstep too.” 

Do Northern Irish politicians want the law to change? 

Sinn Féin Vice President Michelle O’Neill wants the UK government to intervene to liberalise Northern Ireland’s abortion laws 

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 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 Diana Johnson’s private members’ bill as it passes to its second reading in the Commons. The British Pregnancy Advisory Service is backing the campaign Now For NI, which is supporting Johnson’s bill. Visit nowforni.uk for help writing to your MP about this issue.

In addition, 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.

This article was originally published on 7 June 2018, and has been updated with new developments since then. Additional research: Miriam Balanescu. 

Images: Getty Images / Alliance for Choice