Following the landslide vote in the Republic of Ireland on 25 May to repeal the eighth amendment in its constitution and effectively end its abortion ban, the focus almost immediately turned to Northern Ireland, where abortion laws are amongst the strictest in Europe. Changes in the Republic of Ireland will hasten moves for free, safe, legal access to abortion rights in Northern Ireland that women in the rest of the United Kingdom take for granted.
In Northern Ireland, abortion remains illegal in almost all cases under the UK’s 1861 Offences Against The Person Act, which makes it a criminal offence for a woman to cause her own abortion. The 1967 (UK) Abortion Act that exempted women from this legislation was not extended to Northern Ireland.
Denying provision for abortion does not stop abortions, it simply increases the physical, emotional and financial costs to women. More than 700 women travelled from Northern Ireland for an abortion in 2016. Earlier this year, women from Northern Ireland were given the green light to access NHS funded abortions in Britain, but prior to this decision women had to access this service privately at a cost of approximately £1,000. Despite being resident in the UK, women still have to incur the costs of travelling to Britain to avail of NHS abortion services. Other options are to buy abortion pills illegally online, which not only puts them at risk of imprisonment, but also involves taking unregulated medicine without healthcare and support. Or they could continue with an unwanted pregnancy, which many women are forced to do.
The developments in the Republic of Ireland have reverberated across the whole island and led to renewed calls for reform. The Irish referendum result paves the way for unrestricted access to abortions up to 12 weeks of pregnancy, through a GP led service. This is markedly different to what is currently available in Britain where the upper time limit for abortions is 24 weeks.
The renewed momentum for change has moved the issue of abortion out of the shadows to the front and centre of British politics and created yet another political headache for the prime minister. MPs from all political parties have demanded that Northern Ireland is brought into line with the remainder of the UK on this issue. More than 140 MPs have backed a plan by the Labour MP Stella Creasy to amend the Domestic Violence Bill currently making its way through parliament to legalise abortions in Northern Ireland.
In June, the Supreme Court dismissed an appeal brought by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission over the legality of Northern Ireland’s abortion law on a technicality. However, significantly, a majority of the judges said the abortion law was “deeply unsatisfactory” and incompatible with human rights.
The prime minister has stated that she believes that women should be able to access safe and legal abortion, but has refused to intervene. Her default response is that abortion is a devolved issue that should be dealt with by locally elected politicians.
However, the devolved government in Northern Ireland collapsed 18 months ago with little prospect of an imminent return. The region is currently languishing in a no man’s land somewhere between devolution and direct rule. The absence of any sort of functioning government is compounded by the fact that the DUP is propping up the Conservative government in Westminster. A confidence and supply deal has afforded them an unprecedented level of influence in British politics and they are virulently against reform.
Interestingly, whilst this deal does not mention abortion, the DUP party chair Lord Morrow has warned of ‘consequences’ for the prime minister of allowing the Tory party to have a free vote on the issue. The DUP claim that the current abortion arrangements are the settled will of the people of Northern Ireland, but the latest opinion polls suggest otherwise. The Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey 2017, based on a representative sample of the population, found that abortion legislation was out of step with public opinion with overwhelming support for reform of the current laws.
The continuing absence of a devolved Assembly, coupled with increasing pressure from a growing chorus of voices demanding change, make it difficult to see the prime minister’s ‘it is a devolved issue” stance as sustainable. The scale of the verdict in the Irish referendum means that it is impossible to ignore or suggest with any credibility that it does not change the context in Northern Ireland. “Women’s problems” cannot continue to be exported with a pretence that abortion does not exist here.
In Northern Ireland, a place still marked by sectarianism and religious division, where social issues have been pushed into the background for generations, it seems that the time may finally have come to end the culture of shame, silence and guilt that surrounds the subject. It is no longer acceptable to sweep the issue under the carpet and steadfastly refuse to acknowledge that the current system has been massively damaging to the psychology of women. Abortion is a sensitive, deeply contentious, emotive issue that divides opinions with society. A UK-wide evidence-based debate on abortion in the context of healthcare, human rights, social justice, education and ethical issues is long overdue.
Deirdre Heenan is a Professor of Social Policy at Ulster University.