'Landmark' Vote to Decriminalise Abortion in Northern Ireland

Nicky Broyd

July 10, 2019

MPs at Westminster have voted to extend access to abortion, and same-sex marriage rights that apply in the rest of the UK, to Northern Ireland.

The changes are the result of free votes (when MPs do not have to follow their political party) in the Commons, and will apply from 21st October unless the Northern Ireland Assembly which sits at Stormont has been restored by that time.

The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists described the abortion decision as a "landmark moment".



Current Situation

The 1967 Abortion Act allows terminations up to 24 weeks in Great Britain if two doctors say the pregnancy is a risk to a woman's physical or mental health, or if there is a foetal abnormality.

However, that law doesn't apply to Northern Ireland where the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act means women can be jailed if they have an abortion which is deemed illegal, and health professionals are breaking the law if they carry out the procedure.

A study reported by the BMJ in 2018 found that NI's restrictive abortion laws had a negative effect on women's health and well-being and led women to mistrust the health care system.

The Republic of Ireland legalised abortion last year following a referendum.

The NHS in England and Scotland funds terminations for women travelling from Northern Ireland.

Human Rights

The Commons votes were possible because Northern Ireland's own devolved government isn't sitting – and hasn't been since 2017. 

That political breakdown pushed decision making back to Westminster. If the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Fein end their dispute over a failed energy scheme the Stormont assembly could begin working again. If it does, it could repeal the changes. 

The Commons debate heard arguments that current abortion laws in Northern Ireland breached women's human rights.

Labour's Stella Creasy asked: "How much longer are the women of Northern Ireland expected to wait?

"How much more are they expected to suffer before we speak up – the best of what this place does – as human rights defenders, not human rights deniers?"

The DUP said devolved matters (in the case of abortion the devolved issue of health) had been "hijacked".

The abortion issue also split the two prime ministerial candidates. Jeremy Hunt supported the change while Boris Johnson said it remained a devolved issue.