Northern Ireland Is About to Reform Its Abortion Law – Now What?

If its government doesn't reconvene by October 21st, its draconian law will be tossed out the window. Activists are counting down the days.
October 18, 2019, 8:15am
Northern Ireland abortion access protest
A protest march organised in opposition to the DUP and the Tory working agreement and to voice support for the right to access abortion in Northern Ireland. Photo by Michael Tubi / Alamy Live News

With just a few days to go until October 21st, it is almost certain that Northern Ireland’s draconian law against abortion will be reformed. The political situation in Northern Ireland is complex. The region’s devolved government has been suspended for over two years. For campaigners fighting for equal rights issues like abortion, this stalemate has been frustrating.

That is, until July of this year, when Westminster issued a ruling paving the way for the liberalisation of the region’s abortion legislation, provided Northern Ireland’s government is not re-established before October 21st. Although there are fears that Boris Johnson will use abortion in Northern Ireland as a bargaining tactic in Brexit negotiations, at this late stage reform is unlikely to be derailed.

The 1967 act legalising abortion in the rest of the UK was never extended to Northern Ireland. This resulted in an almost total ban on abortion, making the procedure illegal except in exceptional cases where the mother’s life or health is deemed at serious risk. The ban is backed-up by the very real threat of criminal penalties, as evidenced by cases like those of a mother charged with procuring abortion pills online for her teenage daughter and police raids during International Women’s Day in search of abortion pills.

As in the Republic of Ireland, where abortion was legalised just last year, those needing abortions in Northern Ireland are often forced to travel abroad to access the healthcare denied to them at home. Earler this year, statistics compiled by Amnesty International showed that more than 900 girls and women from the region travelled to England and Wales for abortions in the year 2017- 2018 alone.

“We just feel so relieved that it’s finally happening and, you know, wanting to pinch ourselves every so often,” Emma Campbell from Alliance for Choice tells me. The Alliance brings together pro-choice campaigners from across Northern Ireland’s different communities to demand free, safe, legal abortion care.

The night before Campbell and I speak, the UK government published guidelines on the upcoming changes for healthcare professionals in Northern Ireland. It covers the interim period from when the change in law kicks in on October 22nd to March 31st 2020, when the new system is expected to be phased in. “Obviously, nothing is ever perfect but they are as good as we could have expected,” Campbell says when I ask for her take on the guidelines. “They absolutely underline the idea that even people who need to take pills from online providers in the run-up to March will not be prosecuted. That’s a huge step forward. For us, that really means that the people who are most vulnerable have had the biggest weight lifted.”

Explaining why this decriminalisation is so critical, Campbell outlines the heavy penalities women in Northern Ireland have faced for procuring abortion pills. “[There was] a 19-year-old woman who was trying to save up for the money to travel to England for the procedure and couldn't save the money in time and so she ordered pills and her flatmates informed the police,” she says. “As activists, we’ve had our mail intercepted. We’ve had homes and workshops raided. So it’s been a very real punitive threat for people here rather than a hypothetical, theoretical legal one. It’s been an actual area of criminalization. To have those charges lifted and to have the threat of criminalization lifted from medical professionals if they find out about someone taking the pills is just such a huge step forward for safety and peace of mind.”

The guidelines are also something I ask Jill McManus about. She is a medical student and Northern Ireland representative from Doctors for Choice UK. McManus welcomes them but raises some concerns. “I think it’s a really positive move that there have been guidelines published for the interim period. I think it helps clarify some things in the mind for healthcare staff,” she tells me, explaining that the guidelines help counteract “scaremongering” regarding how the new law will work.

She also outlines some “notable” omissions: “There hasn’t been a lot of information about how, if a doctor wants to provide abortion care from 22nd October, how that could be possible or what the legal framework they would be acting under would be.”

McManus highlights that while those needing to travel for an abortion to the UK will now be funded as the guidelines set out during the interim period, the ability to travel does not apply to everyone equally. “We know realistically that there are groups of patients who can’t travel,” she says. “These are people who are asylum seekers and refugees. You need to have a home address and a GP from Northern Ireland to be able to travel. For homeless people that’s a difficulty. For international students, there might be difficulties with their visa and travelling and having to miss class. People in abusive and controlling relationships – how are they supposed to get a flight? Also, people who are low income in Northern Ireland may not have any kind of travel documents with photo ID.”

Northern Ireland’s almost blanket abortion ban perpetuates a culture of shame, stigma and silencing, something pro-choice campaigners are fighting hard to undo. “‘Here in Northern Ireland we know that one of our biggest barriers, following the lack of functioning government, is public opinion,” Ashleigh Topley tells me. She is the Facebook page administrator for In Her Shoes NI, a sister page to Southern Ireland’s In Her Shoes which made a huge impact during its abortion referendum campaign in 2018. The page shares the anonymous stories of women effected by Northern Ireland’s abortion ban.

Topley explains that In Her Shoes NI is about “teaching people the real reasons why women need abortions and how people that want to have abortions aren't monsters. They're your sister, they're your friend; your mother or your daughter.” She tells me of a story recently published on the page: “It’s about a woman that had an abortion and where she works, people are talking in the workplace, about how abortion is bad and being very judgemental and in that story she says she sits there and she feels judged but they don’t know they’re judging her, they don’t know that she has had an abortion.”

For Topley, like so many others, these experiences hit very close to home. “I was denied an abortion for a fatal fetal abnormality and it was horrific. I had to actually continue with that pregnancy until 35 weeks because there was a delay in the diagnosis. I didn’t realise then that post-24 weeks, I could have travelled to England because nobody could tell you that here so I had no choice but to continue on for 15 weeks. Living that and knowing how horrific that was, opened my eyes to what it was like to be pregnant and not want to be.”

Acknowledging that the transition to legalisation will bring its own challenges, Campbell also points out how far the campaign has come: “The idea that we would be where we are today, if you’d have asked us in 2010 – some people were saying that this kind of change wouldn’t happen in our lifetime.”

With liberalisation all but a done deal, Topley sums up what it will mean for activists and those needing to access abortion care post-October 21st: “There’s a feeling of relief that finally, we won’t have to have additional trauma placed on top of us. For people to be able to go and access this essential piece of health care when they need it, in their own country with accents that are familiar to them and hospitals and doctors surgeries that are familiar to them, it just means so, so much that finally we're getting into the 21st century.”