As of midnight abortion will be decriminalised in Northern Ireland, and the government will have to put in place regulations for abortion services by next April, as a result of legislation brought in by MPs at Westminster last July on the grounds of human rights.
This is a huge win for reproductive rights. For decades, Northern Ireland’s abortion laws have been the most restrictive in the UK, and they were also among the most restrictive in Europe – with a near-total ban on abortion, even in cases of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormality. Women who sought terminations in Northern Ireland faced life imprisonment.
Each year, over a thousand NI residents who needed an abortion were forced to travel to England and Wales to procure it. A report by the Department of Health and Social Care stated that in 2018, there were 1,053 abortions for women from Northern Ireland. The highest number of NI residents having an abortion in England and Wales was 1,855 in 1990.
In July, MPs voted overwhelmingly in favour of an amendment to the Northern Ireland Bill, tabled by Labour MP Stella Creasy, which stated that abortion legislation in Northern Ireland would be reformed if the Stormont assembly was not restored by 21 October. The amendment also stated that same-sex marriage should be legalised in Northern Ireland. MPs engaged in a free vote, as the vote was viewed as a matter of conscience, and 332 voted in favour of the amendment, as opposed to 99 votes against.
The historic vote would have been impossible without the long struggle of many thousands of activists campaigning over decades, sometimes in a hostile environment when abortion rights weren’t seen as being in tide with the time.
On October 3, the High Court ruled that Northern Ireland’s anti-abortion laws were in breach of human rights. The ruling came after Sarah Ewart, who was denied a termination despite a fatal foetal abnormality, challenged the law in a Belfast court. Mrs Justice Keegan ruled in favour of Ewart, noting that no other woman should have to experience such a traumatic experience as she did.
In a report published in February, the UN described Northern Ireland’s abortion ban as “tantamount to torture”. The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) said thousands of women and girls in Northern Ireland were subjected to grave and systematic violations of rights through being compelled to either travel outside Northern Ireland to procure a legal abortion or to carry their pregnancy to term.
A public consultation on the proposed legal framework for Northern Ireland will open from tomorrow. Earlier this month, the government published guidance for healthcare professionals on abortion law in Northern Ireland, which will cover the period from tomorrow, October 22, until March 31 2020. This states that anybody who has an abortion, or any healthcare professionals who provide and assist in an abortion, cannot have criminal charges brought against them. The government has also said it has made arrangements to support women resident in Northern Ireland wishing to access services under the existing travel scheme.
Health professionals will be given information about services in England. If somebody approaches them considering an abortion, she will be given the number for the Central Booking Service in England, or the healthcare professional will call the helpline on her behalf.
As of tomorrow, all travel and accommodation needs of those seeking abortions will be funded, regardless of income.
Kerry Abel, Chair of Abortion Rights said: “It’s great news that women will not be subject to criminal charges now in Northern Ireland for the common act of getting an abortion. I’m glad to see that those in the heartbreaking cases of fatal foetal abnormalities will not have to travel abroad and that doctors can freely give advice and will not be obliged to contact the police.
“We want to pay tribute to all of the activists who have worked tirelessly to bring this about, and of course Stella Creasy for pushing it in Parliament.
“Now we have decriminalisation in one part of the UK, the task is to show that decriminalising abortion works and we should remove the outdated Victorian legislation so that abortion is no longer any part of criminal law in the whole of the UK.’
Abortion Rights has long held the position that abortion must be fully decriminalised. Abortion in the United Kingdom is still governed by the archaic Offenses Against the Person Act of 1861. The 1967 Abortion Act allows women in the UK to access abortion under specific circumstances provided they have the consent of two doctors. While the often-celebrated 1967 Abortion Act adjusted to social process and outlined conditions for legal abortion in Great Britain, the law is still in desperate need of reform throughout the country.
Abortion Rights believes it’s about time this changed. 1 in 3 women will need an abortion at some point in her life, and we will continue to work towards ensuring that all those in need of an abortion can safely, legally and freely access healthcare.