By: Jennifer Thomson
Every week, around 15 women travel from Northern Ireland to England to terminate pregnancies. They often do so in secrecy, lying to family and friends, hiding their journey. They pay for the procedure privately, as well as their travel and any accommodation which might be necessary, meaning that they can end up out of pocket for anything between £500 and £2000.
Why is this the case? Why does abortion remain so restricted in Northern Ireland in comparison to the rest of the United Kingdom? Why are abortion rights so unequal across the territories of this country?
The law in Northern Ireland remains framed by the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, which prohibits any attempt to bring about an unlawful miscarriage or to aid anyone in their efforts to do so. In 1937, in a ruling on a doctor who had performed an abortion on a teenage rape victim, a judge held that a termination was legal where:
If the doctor is of the opinion, on reasonable grounds and with adequate knowledge, that the probable consequences of the continuance of the pregnancy will be to make the woman a physical or mental wreck.
This ruling was vague and, in light of this, Lord David Steel initiated moves towards what became the 1967 Abortion Act following his success in the private members’ ballot. The final line of this Act declares, almost as an afterthought, that it “does not extend to Northern Ireland”. This was confirmed in the 1990s and the 1861 Act and the 1937 ruling continues to constitute the very restricted framework in which women in Northern Ireland can access terminations. With the powers around justice and policing now devolved to the Assembly from Westminster, changes to abortion laws are more likely to come from Northern Ireland itself.
The differing legal treatment of the region is in part due to the very unique political situation in Northern Ireland. In 1967, the Parliament at Stormont in Belfast was still in existence and so a legal change from Westminster was deemed unnecessary. Westminster, in the years since the 1967 Act, has not been keen to pursue the topic, eager to avoid controversial issues so as to prop up the long-running peace process. Northern Irish politics remain divided along ethno-national lines, with the devolved Assembly established in 1998 only really taking root following the St Andrew’s Agreement of 2007. From 2007 until 2016, Northern Irish politics experienced its period of greatest stability yet, although a recent scandal and the resignation of Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness is threatening the devolved structures in a manner not witnessed since the early 2000s. The Assembly has now been dissolved, and new elections are scheduled for March. In this context, where keeping the peace process on track and the devolved institutions working has been paramount, the political space for women’s issues such as abortion has been small.
One point of stability in this divided and often crisis-ridden political set-up has been the relative social conservatism which unites parties and politicians of all hues. Abortion is not the only issue on which Northern Ireland differs from the rest of the UK. Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK where same-sex marriage remains illegal. Many liberalising moves around LGBT rights (including the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1982 and the rights of same sex couples to adopt in 2013) were initiated, not via the Assembly, but by private individuals’ actions through the legal system. Politicians who call openly for an extension of the 1967 Act, or for more liberal laws, are rare, and tend to be from the smaller parties. In the Assembly session of 2011 to 2016, only two MLAs openly called for the 1967 Abortion Act to be brought to Northern Ireland – Stephen Agnew of the Green party (at that point, his party’s only MLA) and Anna Lo of the Alliance party, the fifth largest party in the Assembly. Progressive moves on abortion on the part of political parties or the Northern Ireland Executive thus seem unlikely.
In spite of this less than positive state of affairs for abortion laws, and issues around sexuality more generally, the current situation in the province gives cause for hope. In 2012 Marie Stopes opened a clinic in central Belfast and, despite multiple attempts from Stormont politicians to outlaw private facilities which provide terminations, it remains open. Media attention around the issue has also increased dramatically. The cases of Sarah Ewart, who travelled to England in 2013 to terminate a pregnancy with fatal foetal abnormalities in the company of a BBC NI film crew, and an anonymous woman from Belfast who was successfully prosecuted and given a suspended sentence after taking abortion pills bought online, have reignited debate around this issue. Much media attention appeared to be sympathetic to both women’s situations, reflecting a subtle shift in public opinion around abortion.
Yet, as described above, Northern Ireland’s politics remain dangerously fractured. Set against this backdrop, abortion reform looks set to continue to receive little attention, with the energy of politicians, and much of the media and civil society, diverted elsewhere. Substantial legislative change does not appear likely to happen any time soon.