Last week, a historic vote went through the House of Commons which could change everything for abortion rights in Northern Ireland. MPs voted overwhelmingly in favour of an amendment to the Northern Ireland Bill, tabled by Labour MP Stella Creasy, which will see a reform to abortion legislation if the Stormont assembly is not restored by 21 October.
The 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. Abortion in Northern Ireland is still a devolved issue, which means that under the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 it is one of the issues, along with pensions, housing, transport and policing, among others, over which the Northern Ireland Assembly has full legislative powers.
It is rare for a devolved issue to be up for debate on the House of Commons floor, and rarer still for MPs to back devolved issues in such great numbers. However, since Northern Ireland has not had a functioning government for over two years, many MPs share the belief that legislation on social issues in Northern Ireland should be brought into line with the rest of the UK, and that the impasse in Stormont should not hinder progress.
Abortion rights activists throughout the UK celebrated this amendment to the Bill which, if implemented, would mean reform in legislation that would make a difference to the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of Northern Irish women who need abortions each year.
The amendment to the Bill was debated yesterday in the House of Lords, where some peers attempted to lay down so-called ‘wrecking amendments’ designed to change or counteract last week’s Commons vote. DUP Lord Hay of Ballyore and cross-bench peer Baroness O’Loan tabled an amendment calling for a consultation with Members of the Legislative Assembly in Northern Ireland before taking action. These wrecking amendments have now been withdrawn and the Bill is now at the committee stage. It will remain in the upper house until tomorrow when it will return to the House of Commons for amendments.
Meanwhile, there are women in Northern Ireland still facing prosecution –– including a mother who procured abortion pills for her then 15-year-old daughter after the girl became pregnant as a result of an abusive relationship. She faces up to five years in prison if found guilty.
And while we wait to see what happens with the Bill in October, hundreds of women in Northern Ireland will continue to need abortions they cannot access in their country.
What is the law in the UK?
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.
Currently, a pregnant woman faces up to life in prison for attempting to “procure her own miscarriage”. Doctors or any person assisting abortion process can endure the same penalty. Specifically, under OAPA, misoprostol – a common pill used to induce labor for abortion purposes – is considered “a poison or noxious thing” and can warrant criminalization. Misoprostol, however, is not a poisonous substance as declared by the United Nations and has remained on the World Health Organisation’s list of essential medicines as it can be used for other purposes in addition to inducing labour.
The 1967 Abortion Act contains several issues. Chiefly, the mandatory doctors – rather than the woman – are at the center of the decision-making process for termination. This governing law fails to incorporate a rights-based, women-centered approach where a woman is trusted to make the decision regarding her pregnancy. Additionally, the need for two doctors can cause an unnecessary delay in receiving an abortion, potentially putting the woman’s health at risk.
What is the law in Northern Ireland?
The 1967 Abortion Act outlined conditions for legal abortion procedures before the 24th week of pregnancy. However, it did not replace the 1861 Offenses Against the Person Act, nor decriminalise abortion procedures. Notably, the 1967 law has not extended to Northern Ireland, where there is a near-total ban on abortion, even in cases of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormality.
Women in Northern Ireland NI can face a life sentence in prison for choosing to have an abortion under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act (OAPA). A termination is permitted in extreme cases, such as if a woman’s life is at risk or if there is a risk of permanent and serious damage to her mental or physical health – but in the latest statistics from the Department of Health from 2017/18, this lead to just 12 abortions being carried out.
Women are able to travel to England to have the procedure and, after legislation brought in 2017, the cost is covered by the NHS. This still means, however, that women in Northern Ireland are forced to leave their home and travel to procure a service which is a basic human right.
The UN has described Northern Ireland’s ban as “tantamount to torture”. The punishment is up to life imprisonment for both the woman undergoing the abortion, as well as for any individual who assists her. In a report published in February 2018, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) said thousands of women and girls in Northern Ireland are 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.
“The situation in Northern Ireland constitutes violence against women that may amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment,” said CEDAW Vice-Chair Ruth Halperin-Kaddari. She visited Northern Ireland in 2016 to conduct a confidential inquiry, together with then-CEDAW member Niklas Bruun, into allegations by civil society organisations that women in Northern Ireland faced grave and systematic violations of their rights.
In its report, the Committee concluded that a restriction affecting only women from exercising reproductive choice, and resulting in women being forced to carry almost every pregnancy to full term, involved mental and physical suffering constituting violence against women.
What is Stormont and why has it been dissolved?
The Northern Ireland Assembly is the devolved legislature of Northern Ireland, which sits at the Parliament Buildings at Stormont, in Belfast. It has the power to legislate on a range of issues that are not reserved to the Parliament of the UK, and these include health and social services, education, employment and skills, agriculture, social security, pensions and child support, housing, economic development, local government, environmental issues including planning, transport, culture and sport, the Northern Ireland Civil Service, equal opportunities, justice and policing.
The Assembly, along with the North/South Ministerial Council with the Republic of Ireland, was created under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which aimed to end the decades-long Troubles in Northern Ireland.
Stormont is currently in a period of suspension. It collapsed due to policy disagreements between the two governing parties (the DUP and Sinn Féin), and after the resignation of Sinn Féin First Minister of Northern Ireland Martin McGuinness in January 2017, shortly before his death due to illness in March of the same year. Discussions to restore the Assembly have so far been unsuccessful. This means that Northern Ireland has now had two and a half years without a functioning government.
Three things you can do to support a woman’s right to choose
- Send an email or a tweet to your MP and express your support for the amendment. While anti-choicers continue to flood their MPs’ boxes with their anti-choice rhetoric, we need to remind MPs that the UK is still pro-choice.
- Become a member of Abortion Rights. You can do that here
- Shout your support! Take to Twitter, retweet pro-choice campaigns, share your personal experience should you feel able to do so.