Abortion and Same-sex Marriage Legalised in Northern Ireland

Peter Russell

October 22, 2019

Abortion has been made legal for the first time in Northern Ireland despite last-minute attempts to thwart the move.

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

The same law will also legalise same-sex marriage from next year.

The legislation took effect at midnight after a deadline of 21st October passed without a devolved government being formed.

Unionist politicians, led by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), initiated a recall of the Northern Ireland Assembly to block the move. However, the attempt failed as Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) were unable to elect a new speaker by necessary cross-community consent.

Sinn Fein MLAs stayed away from the session at Stormont and described it as a pointless stunt. The Alliance party and other small parties also ignored the recall – the first Assembly session for more than a thousand days following the collapse of power-sharing in 2017.

Decriminalisation of Abortion

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

 

The Government must also put in place regulations for accessing safe and lawful abortion services in the province by 1st April 2020.

 

In the meantime, the Government issued advice to the medical profession covering the interim period. It 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.

Dr Carolyn Bailie, a consultant obstetrician in Belfast, said: "While the final regulations will be agreed following consultation, we are working closely with colleagues in the UK to ensure the relevant training and support is available to enable our clinicians to deliver safe abortion care services within Northern Ireland."

The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) described the change as a momentous victory for women's rights in Northern Ireland.

Katherine O’Brien, associate director at BPAS, commented: "Following this important legislative change, the Secretary of State must now publish the consultation to begin the process of creating a framework for accessible, fully funded local abortion services."

Opponents of decriminalising abortion gave notice that they would try to overturn the legislation. Arlene Foster, leader of the DUP, said her party would "take every possible legal option open to us to try to stop it".

Dawn McAvoy, co-founder of Both Lives Matter said that when the Assembly reconvened, it would "work to reverse bad law implemented through a bad process which will lead to bad consequences for women and their unborn children".

Same-sex Marriage

Under Westminster legislation, that also became law at midnight, same-sex marriage was made legal in Northern Ireland.

The regulations must come into force by 13th January 2020. That would make Valentine's Day next year one of the first opportunities for same-sex couples to marry once they have given the required 28 days' notice.

The ability to form civil partnerships was also afforded to couples not of the same sex.

The lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights charity Stonewall said it was "thrilled" that same-sex marriage would become a reality in Northern Ireland.

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