Women in Northern Ireland will have a legal right to safe abortions from midnight local time (23:00 GMT) on Monday, after a last-ditch bid to maintain the illegality of terminations fell apart in the regional legislature.
MPs at Westminster successfully amended a bill in the summer to include measures to end the near-blanket prohibition on abortion and introduce same-sex marriage, bringing Northern Ireland into regulatory alignment with the rest of the United Kingdom.
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Once the 19th-century laws that criminalise abortion lapse, and with no working executive in the Northern Ireland Assembly, the UK government will assume responsibility for introducing new regulations to provide greater access to terminations in the region by next April.
In the interim period, women will be offered free transport to access abortion services in England.
‘Policing our bodies’
“This law change will not fix what I had to go through but it will make it hopefully better for those who follow after me,” said Sarah Ewart, who became a vocal advocate for reform since having to travel to England for an abortion after receiving a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality.
Grainne Teggart from Amnesty International said the law change would pave the way for a more “compassionate” system.
“From midnight tonight, history will be made, these oppressive laws that have policed our bodies and our healthcare will be brought to an end,” she said.
The DUP, which propped up Prime Minister Theresa May‘s government, made a final effort to prevent the law changing on Monday, after a petition triggered a recall of the Northern Ireland Assembly – the devolved regional legislature which has not sat for almost three years following the collapse of its cross-community power-sharing executive.
“This is not a day of celebration for the unborn,” said party leader Arlene Foster.
‘Farce’ in the Assembly
Monday’s proceedings in East Belfast’s Parliament Buildings were the first time the Assembly had met since January 9, 2017. The legislature still has no executive; funding allocations are made by the civil service, and main budgetary decisions are taken by Parliament in Westminster.
Anti-abortion rights members of the assembly attempted to fast-track a piece of private members’ legislation through in a single day to halt the abortion reform. Under legislation dating from 1861, abortion is illegal in all cases except those which endanger the life of the pregnant woman. MPs led by Stella Creasy, a Labour MP in London, brought the change in the law to allow terminations up to 28 weeks.
Outgoing speaker Robin Newton prevented the matter being considered in Stormont on Monday.
The DUP’s Paul Givan MLA had urged the suspension of standing orders to enable the bill to be tabled.
However, Newton said a new speaker would need to be in place before the assembly could turn to such a legislative bid.
The election of a speaker requires cross-community backing in the chamber – such support was not forthcoming as nationalist members indicated they would not back any appointment in the absence of a power-sharing executive.
Newton added that it was “not good practice” to take a piece of legislation through in one day.
“The assembly cannot do any business until a speaker and deputy speakers are elected,” he said.
Sinn Fein did not turn up to the sitting. The Alliance party and a number of smaller parties such as the Green Party and People Before Profit also stayed away.
“I think the circus and farce today in the Assembly chamber demonstrates very clearly that what we don’t need is political games,” said Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald.
“We need serious politics and the next time that [Assembly members] walk into that chamber it must be to form an executive to deliver for every citizen that lives here in the north of Ireland.”
Under the Act, same-sex marriage will become legal in Northern Ireland in January, with the first wedding expected the following month.
“On same-sex marriage and opposite-sex civil partnerships, regulations are to be made no later than January 13, 2020,” said Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith.
“There are two key areas we are going to consult on. How to allow for religious same-sex marriage ceremonies, and also the issue of conversion from civil partnership to marriage and vice-versa.
“At the latest, the first civil same-sex marriages will take place on the week of Valentine’s Day 2020 … Obviously, we will hear the views of the Assembly, and we will work with them, but the law, from tomorrow, has changed,” he added.
Green Party NI leader Clare Bailey said the DUP could not stand in the way of reform.
“We feel that what is happening is an absolute sham so the DUP can say they fought to the end, when in reality they have done very little since this passed through Westminster,” she said.
People Before Profit leader Gerry Carroll also boycotted the sitting.
“Today is a shameful stunt by the DUP to try to block rights for women, for the LGBT community and it’s a real disgrace what they are trying to do,” he said.
The law changes regarding abortion and marriage could only have been stopped if the crisis-hit devolved executive was revived prior to the midnight deadline – a turn of events that was extremely unlikely.
With the rift between erstwhile coalition partners the DUP and Sinn Fein over issues such as Irish language legislation as wide as ever, a deal to restore power-sharing still looks a long way off.