Today is a monumental day for women’s sexual and reproductive rights in the UK. Abortion in Northern Ireland was decriminalised as of midnight last night. But what does that actually mean? How did we get here, and what difference will it make? Brook’s Head of Policy and Public Affairs, Lisa Hallgarten, gives an overview of this historic change.
In 1861 the Offences Against the Person Act was passed, which made having or providing an abortion a crime across the UK. Although that Act has never been repealed, people in the rest of the UK have been able to have or provide abortions because of the 1967 Abortion Act which set out the different exceptions to that law and all the circumstances in which abortion is legal.* The 1967 Abortion Act never applied to Northern Ireland, so abortion in Northern Ireland has been illegal except in exceptional circumstances right up until the 22nd October 2019.
Consequently, for the past 50 years, women in Northern Ireland have had to travel (mainly to England) to have safe, legal abortions. This has been a huge burden financially, emotionally and logistically for those women. We know that some people have been forced to continue unwanted, or even medically unviable pregnancies, because they haven’t been able to travel.
Since 2009 the Abortion Support Network has helped women with travel costs, abortion costs and logistics; even putting women up in volunteers’ homes when necessary. Following years of campaigning, a high profile court case, and a brilliant political manoeuvre by Stella Creasy MP, abortions in England for women from Northern Ireland are now paid for by the NHS, along with some travel costs. However, for some people travelling is not an option, for asylum seekers and others without the right papers, for those trapped in domestic violence situations, for the disabled and for those (often the young) without family or partner support, travel has sometimes been impossible.
Many of those without medical complications and still early in pregnancy have opted to buy abortion medication online**, but taking it or providing it in Northern Ireland is illegal and has resulted in prosecutions. One of the things we will be celebrating today is the end of such prosecutions.
Yesterday, a woman who had bought medication online for her 15 year old daughter was facing a potential prison sentence. Today, she will rightly be free.
So how did we get here? Brook is part of the UK pro-choice coalition Voice for Choice which has consistently fought to push Northern Ireland’s dire abortion situation up the political agenda, including an attempt to get Parliament to extend the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland last time it was discussed in 2008.
However, real credit must go to the grassroots campaigners in Northern Ireland, who have been advocating for abortion rights consistently, loudly and courageously for decades. Alliance for Choice has led powerful campaigns in Northern Ireland and Westminster, drawing on medical evidence, research, women’s stories, and health and human rights arguments to make their case.
It once seemed impossible that they would turn around public opinion about abortion Northern Ireland, but they have done it. It once seemed impossible that they could attract the attention of the Westminster Parliament and find MPs in Westminster to advocate for them, but they have done it. Their campaign was given a huge boost by the Repeal of the 8th amendment and the subsequent rapid introduction of legal abortion across the border in the Republic of Ireland and the continued support of the London Irish Abortion Rights Campaign. It was pushed across the line last month when MPs voted to decriminalise abortion (and legalise equal marriage hooray!) in the event that the Northern Ireland executive was not reconvened in Stormont by 21st October.
Getting safe, legal, local abortion up and running in Northern Ireland will not happen overnight. We’ll keep supporting our friends in Alliance for Choice to keep up the pressure. But for now…let’s enjoy this historic moment and raise a glass to toast the tenacity of the campaigners, and our friends in Belfast and Derry who achieved this historic victory.
If you need more information on abortion you can visit our website.
*This film Kind to Women: how the 1967 Abortion Act changed our lives is a short documentary about the activists, nurses, politicians, doctors who helped change the law.
**There are two online providers Women on Web and Women Help Women who provide a medical consultation and reliable safe medication in countries where abortion is illegal. It is likely that there are online sources of abortion medication which are not safe or reliable.
NB: Northern Ireland’s decriminalisation of abortion will be followed by a period of consultation with guidelines to be published early next year about how abortion services will operate. In the meantime it is expected that the vast majority of women will continue to travel to England for abortion or buy medication online.