Northern Ireland Abortion Changes Approved by Parliament

Peter Russell

June 19, 2020

Abortion laws which came into effect in Northern Ireland in March this year have been endorsed by MPs in Westminster, despite some political opposition from Stormont.

The laws were drafted in 2019 before devolved government was restored.

The regulations allow terminations in the first 12 weeks of a pregnancy, and in some other limited circumstances.

MPs backed the changes retrospectively by 253 votes to 136, a majority of 117.

The Lords had already approved them earlier this week.

Devolved Assembly 

Northern Ireland's abortion laws were changed by MPs last year when the devolved government was mothballed.

Earlier this month, a majority of members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) approved a motion that rejected the new laws.

Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) MP Carla Lockhart described the move at Westminster as one of the darkest days in Northern Ireland's history.

"The will of the people of Northern Ireland has been ignored," she said.

Catherine Robinson, spokesperson for Right to Life UK described the decision as "an incredibly tragic day for Northern Ireland, for the unborn child, and everyone who supports the right to life".

Anti-abortion activists claimed that the provisions in the regulations discriminated against disabled people.

Their campaign against the laws has focused on a regulation that allows for terminations up to birth in cases of serious non-fatal disabilities.

'Shackles of Our Past'

Responding to the vote, Grainne Teggart, Amnesty International's Northern Ireland campaign manager, said: "It’s great to see another strong majority vote for abortion rights in Northern Ireland. After so long, it’s right that we finally leave behind the shackles of our past - this is what women and girls here deserve.  

"Since 31st March, women have had the right to access services in Northern Ireland – no one should be forced to travel far for healthcare anymore. Northern Ireland’s Department of Health must now commission these services as a matter of priority.

"The passing of these regulations doesn't exempt the Northern Ireland Office from further responsibility. The Secretary of State must ensure these regulations apply in practice and that services are properly funded and accessible to all who need them."

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

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

An attempt by the DUP to block the move by recalling the Northern Ireland Assembly failed because MLAs were unable to elect a new speaker by necessary cross-community consent.

The changes mean that women trying to access abortion services in Northern Ireland will no longer be prosecuted.