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 strictest abortion rules, allowing 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.

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.

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

Opposition remains fierce. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has pledged to use “every legal option” to block abortion rights.

“This is not [about] women’s rights,” said the DUP’s Jim Wells, in a fiery radio interview on Monday. “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.”

So is Wells right or wrong?

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”. 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.”

You Decide

  1. Is abortion wrong?

Activities

  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?

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.
What do we not know?
Whether the abortion question will ever be resolved. Yesterday, both “#AbortionIsAWoman’sRight” and “#AbortionIsMurder” trended on Twitter.

Word Watch

Decriminalised
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.
Embryo
The clump of cells that will become a baby.
In utero
In the uterus.

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