LONDON, United Kingdom – Attempts to liberalize access to abortion in Northern Ireland continue, shortly after legal abortion was introduced in the Republic of Ireland, with both legislation in Westminster and a legal challenge.
Abortion is legally permitted in Northern Ireland only if the mother’s life is at risk or if there is risk of permanent, serious damage to her mental or physical health. Elective abortion is legal in the rest of the United Kingdom up to 24 weeks.
British prime minister Theresa May has said abortion should be a devolved issue for Northern Ireland, but the Northern Ireland Assembly is currently suspended due to disagreements between the two major governing parties.
Last week, one member of the British parliament wanted to add an amendment promoting abortion reform in Northern Ireland to a bill meant to curb domestic violence.
Labour and Co-operative MP Stella Creasy intended to put forward an amendment to the draft Domestic Abuse Bill which would give the British parliament jurisdiction over abortion laws throughout the United Kingdom, The Sunday Times reported Jan. 27. However, the bill’s scope was restricted by the government, blocking the amendment.
The Democratic Unionist Party, the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly and a key supporter of the Conservative Party government, is opposed to changing the region’s abortion law.
Separately, a Belfast woman plans to bring forward a personal challenge to Northern Ireland’s abortion law to court this week.
Sarah Ewart, who is backed by Amnesty International, traveled to England in 2013 for an abortion after her doctors reportedly told her that her baby would not survive outside of the womb. She has previously campaigned to change the law to allow for abortion in cases of “fatal fetal abnormality.”
In June 2018, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission challenged the region’s abortion laws in the UK Supreme Court. While the Supreme Court concluded that Northern Ireland’s abortion laws violated human rights law by banning abortion in cases of fatal fetal abnormality, rape, and incest, it threw out the case saying it had not been brought forward by a person who had been wrongfully harmed by the law.
Ewart’s challenge to the abortion law before the court is expected to last three days.
Northern Ireland’s abortion law has been under increased pressured in recent years. Since abortion became legal in the Republic, calls for “the north is next” and “now for Northern Ireland” have increased.
In October 2018, the British parliament passed a bill requiring the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to provide guidance to civil servants on how to exercise their functions regarding human rights.
Under the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018, Karen Bradley, the Northern Ireland Secretary, is to guide Northern Irish officials on how to exercise their functions in light of what the UK Supreme Court said in June regarding the region’s abortion law.
Debate over the bill in the House of Lords focused on the importance of devolution.
Creasy had introduced an amendment to the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018 in the House of Commons to repeal Northern Irish law on abortion and gay marriage, which was defeated.
Since November 2017, Northern Irish women have been able to procure free National Health Service abortions in England, Scotland, and Wales.
Bills to legalize abortion in cases of fatal fetal abnormality, rape, or incest failed in the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2016.