On 22 October 2019, abortion was decriminalised in Northern Ireland (NI). This meant that, with immediate effect, no woman in NI who ends a pregnancy up to 24 weeks would be at risk of prosecution. On the second anniversary of the decriminalisation, pro and anti choice groups demonstrated.
Abolish Abortion NI (a coalition of religious reactionaries against the right to choose) held a protest outside St Patrick’s Cathedral in Armagh during a service to mark the centenary of the foundation of Northern Ireland. The group are calling for reversal of the 2019 changes.
Feminists marked the anniversary with a protest in Belfast, because the law is not being implemented. The North’s Minister for Health, Robert Swan (UUP), has not commissioned the abortion services required under the law so people who could access abortion are still forced to travel. Earlier this month, Belfast’s high court ruled in a case brought by the NI Human Rights Commission that the British secretary of state had failed to comply with his duty to ensure that abortion services were provided “expeditiously”.
According to figures from Stormont’s Department of Health, 1,556 terminations have taken place in Northern Ireland between March 2020 and June 2021. But health trusts have been only carrying out limited services, meaning some women seeking an abortion beyond 10 weeks in their pregnancy have still had to travel to Great Britain to access services. This was of course only possible for those with resources for the trip during a pandemic.
The same week as the anniversary, Stormont’s health committee voted in favour of a Bill proposed by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) which would further restrict legal abortion. The Bill seeks to amend the law to remove the right to abortion in cases of “severe foetal abnormality”. The law currently allows for abortion after 24 weeks in these cases.
The two DUP committee members voted for the Bill. The UUP’s one committee member also supported it. The two members who voted against the Bill were from People Before Profit and Alliance. The SDLP’s one member and Sinn Féin’s three members all abstained.
The Bill may come to the full assembly for a vote this year. At its first stage, just 12 out of 87 MLAs voted against it. Unionist parties are hell bent on further restricting the right to choose and the nationalist parties are not standing in their way.
This doesn’t reflect opinion across the North. A 2020 poll showed almost 60% of people believed abortion should be decriminalised, rising to 70% when it comes to fatal foetal abnormality cases. The movement which had been visible in the run up to decriminalisation must reorganise and reassert itself. The religious reactionaries and conservatives have not given up on the war over abortion.