2018 to 2020:
Abortion access in Northern Ireland
Status of abortion in Northern Ireland:
Northern Ireland (N.I.) is part of the United Kingdom (UK) which also includes England, Wales and Scotland. The UK has a very liberal pro-choice abortion law, the 1967 Abortion Act. However it did not apply to Northern Ireland.
The island of Ireland is divided between:
- The Republic of Ireland (ROI) in the southern and central part of the Island. It has been an independent state since separation from the United Kingdom in 1921, and
- Northern Ireland (N.I.), a constituent country that is part of the United Kingdom, along with England, Scotland and Wales.
The Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland share an open border that allows free travel between the two jurisdictions.
On MAY-27, the results of a referendum in the Republic of Ireland were announced. About two thirds of its adults had voted whether to reword an article in the country's Constitution that had criminalized almost all abortions. They voted by a ratio of about 2:1 to permit the Government to change the article's text so that abortions would become freely available up until the 12th week of pregnancy, and restricted afterwards. Although the proposal would not allow a woman's free choice to have an abortion as late as women in other English speaking countries, it still would allow many women to detect that they are pregnant, have a short time to decide whether to have an abortion, and be able to schedule an abortion if that is her wish.
With the passage of this referendum, attention shifted to Northern Ireland which still banned almost all abortions.
As a stop-gap measure, abortion clinics are expected to be opened in the Republic of Ireland close to the Northern Irish border so that women from the North will be able to travel to obtain an abortion -- perhaps in Monaghan, Dundalk, and/or Sligo. Alternately, they will still be able to travel to England for an abortion, although that requires a boat or airplane ride.
Abortions are currently only allowed in Northern Ireland when a continued pregnancy would threaten the woman's life, or if there is a risk of permanent damage to her mental or physical health. During 2017, there were only 16 legal abortions provided in the country. However, many N.I. women traveled to another country for an abortion -- most often to England. Until recently, they had to pay for both their traveling expenses and the cost of the abortion. Some were able to illegally obtain abortion pills.
In late 2017-JUN, the N.I. Labour party forced the UK government to address the financial problem faced by women in Northern Ireland. Justine Greening, the UK Equalities Minister, decided that the Government Equalities Office will pay the future medical costs for any women from Northern Ireland who come to England in order to have an abortion.
"At present, women from Northern Ireland are asked for payment. ... from now on it is our proposal that this will no longer happen." 1
Mara Clarke is the director of the Abortion Support Network, which offers financial assistance to women in need of abortions. She said:
"This is an incredible step forward. Anyone traveling for an abortion will save a minimum of £330, thanks to today’s announcement. However, they will still have to pay for flights and accommodation, childcare, and time off work."
At the time, £330 British Pounds was equal to about U.S. $440.
“... there will always be women who cannot travel. Women who don’t have someone who can watch existing children, or women made pregnant by controlling or violent partners. And no one should have to travel. We rejoice today – but the work will still be here tomorrow." 1
During 2018-MAY, Inspired by changes in the South, some Northern Irish pro-choice individuals have asked, as a minimum, a relaxation of laws so that girls and women can access an abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality and pregnancy caused by rape or incest.
2018-JUN-05: Discussion in the UK Parliament about abortion laws in Northern Ireland:
The political nature of the UK is unique in the world. According to Wikipedia:
"The United Kingdom (UK) comprises four countries: England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Within the United Kingdom, a unitary sovereign state, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales have gained a degree of autonomy through the process of devolution." 2
Devolution involves the UK Parliament transferring specific parts of its legislative powers to the government assemblies in the other UK countries.
The Alliance for Choice and the London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign issued a joint statement. They commented on a discussion in the UK Parliament about liberalizing the laws concerning abortion access in Northern Ireland. They thanked MP (Member of Parliament) Stella Creasy (of the Labour Party) for her promotion of abortion access there and are pleased at the level of support shown among MPs (Members of Parliament) from various parties. 3
As the laws now stand, a woman who obtains an illegal abortion in Northern Ireland can theoretically receive a sentence of life imprisonment.
Remaining In opposition to abortion choice are pro-life promoters in Northern Ireland who suggest that their country should make its own laws concerning abortion access. Pro-life campaigner Bernadette Smyth referred to the debate about abortion in Northern Ireland in the UK Parliament as:
"Outrageous. ... Abortion is a devolved matter in Northern Ireland and the protection of unborn life is a fundamental concern for us all. It underlines all human dignity. ... We have a legal and democratic right to make our own laws, [on topics] such as abortion. So to listen to a debate [in the UK Parliament] about women in Northern Ireland is sickening and it was disgusting."
Jessica Phillips is the MP for Birmingham Yardley in England. She feels that the UK Parliament should be free to discuss abortion access in Northern Ireland. She said:
"We're not doing this as Westminster overlords. We are doing it because hundreds and hundreds of women from Northern Ireland have requested that we fight for their rights. ..."
"I don't think it is a political issue. I think it's a no-brainer. I think it's really important as well, not just to talk about the really difficult cases, but also just to talk about ordinary women, just like me, who have made these decisions in their lives, because that is the vast majority."
She also said:
"It's not just about the law in Northern Ireland. It's about repealing the fact that abortion still exists in criminal law, rather than scientific health-related policy -- and that's the same for women across the entirety of the UK.
To repeal that would mean that Northern Ireland, as a devolved nation, would have to make their own health guidance on that matter."
She said that at that point, she would campaign to have the law changed there.
Grainne Teggart of Amnesty International in Northern Ireland said:
"There is now an unstoppable momentum for change for Northern Ireland and we are positive that that will come. ... Women who have had to travel for abortions from here to the rest of the UK are no longer willing to be silenced ..."
In all likelihood, women in Northern Ireland will not have to go to England for abortions in the future. New abortion facilities will probably be set up in Ireland near the Northern Irish border.
Stella Creasy, a Labour MP, tabled an amendment to the Domestic Abuse Bill currently before the UK’s House of Commons. She said:
"The forthcoming domestic violence bill is due to consider the Victorian Offences Against the Person Act, which criminalizes women in this way. Repealing it would lay the foundation for a modern medical approach to abortion across the UK, including in Northern Ireland, which could put women’s safety at the heart of future legislation."
The British Pregnancy Advisory Service is one of the UK's biggest abortion providers. They sent the following communiqué to all Britain’s MPs:
"I would like to stress that I am asking that you back moves to decriminalize abortion in Northern Ireland, as supported by medical experts and human rights bodies, NOT for a referendum nor an extension of the 1967 Abortion Act. Both these proposed solutions have been explicitly REJECTED by Northern Ireland civil society groups and medical organizations." 4
2019-JUL-18: UK government votes to allow women in Northern Ireland to choose to have early abortions:
In a referendum conducted in Ireland during 2018, two thirds of the electorate voted to allow women to choose to have an abortions. Their government voted to implement the referendum, effective on 2019-JAN-01. This resulted in attention being directed to Northern Ireland where women could not choose to have an abortion. Access to an abortion was only granted there in very unusual cases, to preserve the life of the mother.
During 2019-APR, Sky Data conducted a poll of Northern Ireland adults to determine their response to many topics. One question asked: "Should abortion be legal for women up to 12 weeks in Northern Ireland. By "legal" they presumably mean that the existing laws would be changed so that individual women would be able to chose to have an abortion for any reason. Response was 54% in favor and 30% opposed. 5 In spite of the almost 2 to 1 opinion favoring abortion choice, the Northern Ireland government did not take any action to liberalize the abortion law.
Abortion choice was legalized throughout the rest of the UK by the Abortion Act of 1967. However, Northern Ireland was exempted from that law.
During mid 2019-JUL, the UK amended the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill. This had the effect of granting women abortion choice in Northern Ireland. The marriage laws were also amended to permit same same-sex couples to marry.
On JUL-06, Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh, the Roman Catholic Primate of All Ireland, said:
"I am also deeply concerned by suggestions that amendments are being considered to the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill, going through Westminster on Monday next, which will hijack this bill to remove existing legal protection for unborn babies and to ‘fast track’ the legalization of abortion on demand in Northern Ireland. How tragic it is for humanity that some legislators would ‘fast track’ the ending of the lives of the most defenseless in our society." 6
On JUL-17, the Roman Catholic bishops in Northern Ireland appealed to the Prime Minister to stop the bill. They wrote, in part:
"The equal right to life, and love, of a mother and her unborn child is so fundamental to the common good of every society that citizens deserve the fullest participation in the democratic debate about the legislation which governs it. This also applies to decisions regarding the nature of marriage. What is happening in Westminster during these days recklessly undermines this fundamental right of citizens and the principle of devolution at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement. It should be a matter of grave alarm for every citizen in Northern Ireland and all who cherish the right to life as the most fundamental of all human rights." 6
The "Good Friday Agreement" was the document that ended the three decade long Protestant/Catholic religious conflict called "The Troubles." During that conflict over 3,500 people died.
Lord David Alton, a Catholic member of the House of Lords from England, commented that the bill passed:
"... despite the knowledge that the democratically elected Northern Ireland Assembly voted in 2016 by a clear majority not to change its law on abortion in any way," and "that there was no public consultation and no warning" before the legislation was passed. 6
According to The Conversation:
"In July 2019, Westminster passed [by a vote of 332 to 99] legislation which said that if the Northern Irish Assembly had not been re-established by  October 21 then the law in Northern Ireland would be changed. That means that a new legal framework for abortion law must be in place by March 31 2020 and same-sex marriage and opposite-sex civil partnerships must be introduced by January 13 2020.
The new law in Nothern Ireland may not allow abortion access as freely as the law in the UK. If so, then agitation for change may still ocurr in 2020. 7
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
- Jessica Elgot & Henry McDonald, "Northern Irish women win access to free abortions as May averts rebellion," The Guardian, 2017-JUN-29, at: https://www.theguardian.com/
- Wikipedia (looking for it)
- The Alliance for Choice and the London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign issued a joint statement," London Irish Alliance for Choice, 2018-JUN-06, at: https://londonirisharc.com/ (As of 2018-JUN-08, this statement appears to have a typo: it is dated 2017 instead of 2018. We have informed the Alliance.)
- K.V. Turley, "Abortionists Target Northern Ireland," Crisis Magazine, 2018-JUN-25, at: https://www.crisismagazine.com/
- "How Northern Ireland is still split," Sky News, 2019-APR-10, at: https://news.sky.com/
- Charles Collins, "Northern Ireland’s pro-life laws set to end after UK parliament vote," Crux, 2019-JUL-19, at: https://cruxnow.com/
- "Northern Ireland has been forced to change its abortion law – here’s how it happened," The Conversation, 2019-OCT-22, at: http://theconversation.com/
Original posting: 2018-MAY-29
Latest update: 2018-OCT-24
Author: B.A. Robinson