Abortion no longer illegal in Northern Ireland

New era: A triumph for grassroots activism. © Getty

Is abortion about women’s rights? As of yesterday, women in Northern Ireland can end their pregnancies without fear of prosecution. It marks an end to one of the world’s strictest abortion laws.

For decades, Northern Ireland has upheld one of the world’s most restrictive abortion rules, permitting the procedure only when the mother’s life is at risk. Victims of rape and incest seeking to end any resulting pregnancy could expect to face the inside of a police cell.

But at the stroke of midnight on Monday, those laws came crashing down. Abortion is now decriminalised in Northern Ireland and, from February 2020, same-sex couples will be able to marry.

In Belfast, activists and women who had suffered under the law were jubilant and relieved.

It is “the beginning of a new era for Northern Ireland — one in which we’re free from oppressive laws that have policed our bodies and healthcare,” declared Grainne Teggar of Amnesty International.

“Thousands of women from the North have abortions every year outside the law, in their bedrooms or in England,” said pro-choice activist Goretti Horgan. “They will now be able to access normal health care.”

Now that this deeply religious, conservative region has been brought into line with the rest of the UK, is the abortion issue settled once and for all?

Opposition remains fierce. The legal change itself did not come from Northern Ireland, which has not had a functioning government for almost three years, but from Westminster.

In a last-ditch attempt to block the change, on Monday, MPs from the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) filed into Stormont for the first time in over 1,000 days. They tried to mount a Defence of the Unborn Child bill, but the plot descended into constitutional wrangling and fell apart.

But the party’s pro-life stance remains firm. The DUP has pledged to use “every legal option” to block abortion rights, maintaining that 57% of the Northern Irish population “didn’t want a change in the abortion laws”.

“This is not [about] women’s rights,” said the DUP’s Jim Wells in a fiery radio interview. “The human rights that everybody ignores in all of this [are] the rights of the unborn human being, and they are the most vulnerable of humans.”

Many around the world agree with him, as the debate over abortion rights rages from Europe to Latin America. In Trump’s USA, a woman in Georgia could face 30 years in prison for terminating her pregnancy.

So, is Wells right or wrong? Is abortion about women’s rights?

Decades of discord

It is not a feminist issue, writes Andrew Glover. Pro-lifers “don’t dispute that women should have control over their bodies. What they do dispute is that bodily autonomy should include the right to end the life of a human fetus or embryo, which they view as morally equivalent to your life or mine”. In Jim Wells’s words, “It’s morally wrong to kill unborn babies.”

But Elizabeth Nelson disagrees. “It’s about control over women’s bodies and lives […]. The value [pro-lifers] place on life starts and ends in utero — confining women to traditional gender roles and controlling their ability to participate in society.” After all, “if it was about abortion and not control, they would have been calling for free universal childcare and affordable housing for all”. Anti-abortion activists only care about “life” when it suits them; they are using the embryo to control the woman.

You Decide

  1. Is abortion wrong?
  2. Should Westminster get to decide Northern Ireland’s abortion laws?


  1. Write a diary entry, noting yesterday’s important changes in Northern Ireland, and consider the questions: Why does it matter? How will it go down in history? Will it affect the rest of the UK, or the world?
  2. Class debate time! “This House believes that abortion is morally wrong.”

Some People Say...

“If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.”

Florynce Kennedy (1916-2000), US lawyer, feminist and activist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Only 42% of the world’s population live in a country where abortion is fully decriminalised. El Salvador, Malta, and 10 African countries have a blanket ban on abortions in any circumstances. Meanwhile in Trump’s USA, abortion laws are being radically tightened. Women in the southern state of Georgia now face 30 years in prison if they are found to be responsible for a miscarriage.
What do we not know?
Whether the abortion question will ever be resolved. Yesterday, both “#AbortionIsAWoman’sRight” and “#AbortionIsMurder” trended on Twitter. Perhaps attitudes to abortion in Northern Ireland will change over time, as they have in the UK. In 2017, 70% of the British public said they believed that a woman who doesn’t want a child should have access to abortion.

Word Watch

All ongoing police investigations into Northern Irish abortions have been halted.
February 2020
The new bills put the House of Commons on track to legislate for marriage equality by January 2020. The first same-sex weddings are due to happen on Valentine’s Day 2020.
Three years
Under the Good Friday Agreement, unionists and nationalists in Northern Ireland must share power. However, the power-sharing agreement between the DUP and the nationalist Sinn Féin party collapsed over a green energy scandal, and the parties have been unable to reach a deal since.
The home of the Northern Irish assembly in Belfast.
Constitutional wrangling
It was impossible for the DUP to pass any legislation without the consent of Sinn Féin, who described the DUP’s efforts as a “circus”.
According to a LucidTalk survey.
30 years
Most of the tighter US abortion laws introduced in the US this year have not come into effect as they are awaiting legal challenges.
In utero
In the uterus.

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