Unlike in Britain, abortion is almost completely criminalised in Northern Ireland. This does not prevent women from needing or seeking abortion.
Instead it unfairly forces them to travel secretly, often alone, to Britain or Europe. With short notice, women have to find money for a private procedure, costing a minimum of £450, to pay for travel and accommodation, to arrange time off work and often to find an alibi to explain their absence. Some women can’t afford to do this and instead resort to unsafe, illegal ‘back street’ abortion.
Over 54,000 women, including young women, older women, mothers, single women and married women have been forced to make this difficult journey since the 1967 when the British Abortion Act was passed.
In 1967, following a huge pro-choice campaign, the British parliament decided that it was no longer tolerable to allow women to be killed and injured through back-street abortion. The 1967 Abortion Act, legalised abortion in Britain in restricted circumstances.
At the time Northern Ireland had its own parliament and the issue of abortion was left for it to decide. It never took up the issue. When Direct Rule returned Westminster, abortion rights were never extended to the women of Northern Ireland.
What is Northern Irish Law on Abortion?
The law in Northern Ireland now is as it was in Britain before 1967. The 1861 Offences Against the Person Act makes all abortions illegal. The 1929 Infant Life (Preservation) Act was extended to Northern Ireland in 1945 and allows abortion to preserve a mother’s life. Also influential is the Bourne judgement of 1938: this is case law allowing abortion in circumstances of risk to mental or physical health.
Very few abortions are allowed legally in Northern Ireland today: around about 70 per year. These are mostly in fairly extreme cases, where the mother’s physical or mental health is severely and permanently endangered.
Legal Ambiguities: A Breach of Human Rights
In 2001, The Family Planning Association in Northern Ireland took the historic step of initiating legal action against the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety arguing that it was acting unlawfully in failing to issue guidance on what abortion services are available and in what circumstances, and also in failing to provide proper public healthcare services to women with unplanned pregnancies.
The fpa won the right to a judicial review, and in March 2002 Mr Justice Brain Kerr recommended that the DHSSP should issue guidelines. This has not been done.
The fpa stated that
A woman facing an unwanted pregnancy faces a lottery in terms of finding a doctor who might consider offering abortion. One study found that just under half of gynaecologists in Northern Ireland had a conscientious objection to performing abortions.
An independent government body was set up to ensure that Northern Irish law measures up with International human rights obligations. In 1993 they issued a public consultation document on the issue of abortion, which stated that:
A campaign for women’s human rights
Abortion Rights wants Northern Irish law to be brought into line with the rest of the UK so that women are not forced to undergo abortions in unnecessarily difficult circumstances.
The first step to open up the debate in Northern Ireland is for the government to issue clarification about the current legal restrictions there.
Abortion Rights calls on pro-choice supporters to write to Patricia Hewitt, Secretary of State for Health, and ask that the Department of Health promptly issues guidelines and that it takes steps to end the policy of criminalisation in Northern Ireland.
Patricia Hewitt can be contacted at:
Department of Health