UK politicians call for Northern Ireland abortion reforms

Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK where abortion is illegal unless pregnancy poses a serious health risk.

''Alliance for Choice'' and other pro-choice groups from both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland
The Republic of Ireland voted in favour of repealing the country's abortion ban in May [Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters]

More than 170 politicians from the UK and Ireland have signed a letter calling on the UK government to decriminalise abortion in Northern Ireland.

The cross-party letter, published in UK newspaper The Sunday Times, said the “current situation for women [in Northern Ireland] cannot be ignored or allowed to continue”.

It added: “Without urgent action, women and girls living in Northern Ireland will continue to be unable to access safe healthcare at home.” 

Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK exempt from the 1967 Abortion Act, meaning abortion is illegal unless a pregnancy poses a serious risk to a woman’s physical or mental health.

Legislative disparity

Within the UK’s other constituent parts – England, Scotland and Wales – a termination may be carried out legally within the first 24 weeks of pregnancy. An abortion may also be carried out past 24 weeks if the pregnancy poses significant health risks to the mother, according to the 1967 law.

In May, the Republic of Ireland voted overwhelmingly in favour of overturning a ban on abortion, clearing the way for the introduction of less restrictive abortion laws and rendering Northern Ireland’s abortion policies the most restrictive in the British Isles.

Northern Ireland’s abortion laws are derived from a 157-year old piece of legislation, known as the Offences Against the Person Act (OAPA) of 1861.

Rape or incest survivors do not qualify for access to legal abortion services under the 1861 Act, nor do women carrying a foetus with a fatal abnormality.

The law is one of several points of social policy difference between Northern Ireland’s devolved powers and the UK’s central government in Westminster. 

The letter, however, said Northern Ireland should no longer be able to apply a different law in the case of abortion, arguing that the country’s current legislation violates terms set out under the 1999 Good Friday Agreement, on which Northern Ireland’s devolved powers are based.

“An essential first step in delivering this human right would be for the Westminster parliament to repeal sections 58 and 59 of OAPA and decriminalise abortion and we urge Westminster to set out an explicit legislative timetable as to when it will do so,” it said.

Accessing legal abortion services

The ongoing legal disparity regarding abortion has meant women regularly travel from Northern Ireland to other parts of the UK in order to have the procedure performed legally.

According to the Department of Health, 919 women made such a journey last year. This marked more than a 25 percent increase in the total from 2016. 


Other women “took illegal abortion pills … without the support of a medical professional” or faced criminal proceedings for having had an abortion, according to Sunday’s letter. 

Last month, the UK’s Supreme Court ruled Northern Ireland’s abortion laws breached Article 8 – the right to respect for private and family life – of the European Convention on Human Rights.

“Those responsible for ensuring the compatibility of Northern Ireland law with the convention rights will no doubt recognise and take account of these conclusions, at as early a time as possible, by considering whether and how to amend the law, in the light of the ongoing suffering being caused by it,” the court’s judgment said.

‘A violence against women’

The judgement came four months after a UN committee said policy in Northern Ireland breached the rights of women.

“The situation in Northern Ireland constitutes violence against women that may amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment,” Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, vice chair of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), said in February.

“Denial of abortion and criminalisation of abortion amounts to discrimination against women because it is a denial of a service that only women need,” she added.

According to the latest Northern Ireland Life and Times survey, 60 percent of those polled said abortion “probably” or “definitely” should be illegal in cases where a pregnant woman “does not want to have children”.

More than 80 percent of people, however, said abortion should “probably” or “definitely” be legal in cases where a foetus has a fatal abnormality and will not survive beyond birth. About 78 percent also agreed abortion should “probably” or “definitely” be legal when a woman has become pregnant because of rape or incest. 

Source: Al Jazeera