Will Abortion Be Decriminalised in Northern Ireland Next Week?

Peter Russell

October 17, 2019

Accessing abortion services in Northern Ireland will be decriminalised next week unless devolved government is restored in the province by Monday.

The changes would mean that from 22nd October 2019 women who seek to access abortion services in Northern Ireland would no longer be prosecuted. Also, any investigations or prosecutions already underway would no longer proceed.

Legislation decriminalising abortion in Northern Ireland was passed by MPs in July 2019 under the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Act.

The Act committed the Government to put in place regulations for accessing safe and lawful abortion services by 1st April 2020.

However, none of the changes would be implemented if Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) return to Stormont, which has been mothballed since power sharing ended in 2017.

Advice for Health Professionals

In preparation for the expected change, the Government issued advice to the medical profession covering the period from 22nd October this year to 31st March next year.

Dr Grainne Doran, chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners in Northern Ireland also wrote to members setting out the changes and what is expected of members.

Advice from the Government said that because of the urgent timescales involved, there were no plans for additional abortion services to be made available in Northern Ireland before the end of March next year. For instance, there was no expectation that GPs would prescribe medication for early medical abortion.

The Department of Health and Social Care had therefore made arrangements to support women resident in Northern Ireland to access services in England under an existing travel scheme. This would be available to all women, and would no longer be means tested.

The free package of care included:

  • A consultation including impartial information and advice, and where needed, counselling with an abortion provider in England, including an assessment of whether the legal grounds for an abortion in England are met

  • An abortion procedure

  • HIV and sexually transmitted infection tests

  • Choice of contraception from the abortion provider

Health professionals in Northern Ireland who were approached by a woman considering an abortion should give her the telephone number for the Central Booking Service in England, or call the helpline on her behalf.

Health professionals with a conscientious objection to abortion should direct women to information about abortion services, and explain their right to see another doctor.

In 2018, 1053 women travelled to England from Northern Ireland for an abortion procedure funded by the UK Government. Some women may have chosen to travel to other countries, including Scotland, to access services.


Abortion is a highly contentious issue in Northern Ireland. Some have welcomed liberalisation, while thousands have joined demonstrations opposed to the move.

One GP, Dr Andrew Cupples, warned of a mass exodus of healthcare professionals if they had to assist in a pregnancy termination. He was speaking to the Belfast Telegraph after a letter signed by 815 doctors, nurses, and midwives was sent to ministers expressing opposition to any change in legislation.

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), whose backing could be crucial to the chance of Boris Johnson's Brexit deal being approved at Westminster, called this week for a speedy recall of the Northern Ireland Assembly to "oppose the extreme liberalisation of our abortion law".     

Last night in the House of Commons, Robin Walker, a junior minister at the Northern Ireland office, hinted at a renewed attempt to restore devolved government to Northern Ireland. "The House should be in no doubt of the strength of our resolve to get Stormont back up and running," he said, adding that talks had recently intensified.

That prompted Labour MP Stella Creasy to ask: "What could it possibly be in the next couple of days that has suddenly renewed the Government’s vigour and their desire to reopen the talks, and to offer the idea that the abortion law for the people in Northern Ireland could be suspended when there is a Brexit deal to be done?"

Mr Walker replied: "I would prefer, as would the Government, that the Northern Ireland Assembly was considering reforms of Northern Ireland's abortion law.

"This is, as I have noted, a highly sensitive devolved issue and as such it would be best addressed by Northern Ireland's locally elected and locally accountable political representatives."