Northern Ireland Legalises Abortion

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Abortion laws have perhaps been the most controversial issue persisting within the Northern Irish political scene for decades. A new turn of events has just altered this forever. Until this point, abortion was only legal in Northern Ireland in incredibly severe cases in which the woman’s life is not only endangered by birth, but her mental or physical health was permanently risked. Other incredibly prevalent reasonings such as rape, incest or even the health of the baby do not warrant abortion under the previous law. 

Undeniably divisions in opinions of those in Northern Ireland regarding abortion stem from religious divisions, with many devout Catholics considering it immoral, or against the will of God to abort what many consider a living being. Whilst the DUP maintains this stance, the Sinn Fein has been taking steps towards the support of the Abortion Reform campaign. However, it is approaching the issue carefully, agreeing to support ‘relaxation’ of the law rather than full ‘legalisation’ so as to not isolate its heavily Catholic support. Although to many non-Northern Irish onlookers, this may seem a feeble attempt, for many it is an entirely miraculous turn-around from a party which just last year voted against allowing abortion during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Is the Sinn Fein turnaround the driving force behind the change?

The sudden change was driven by MPs in Westminster, who (July 2019) passed a legislation requiring the Northern Irish government to alter abortion laws if devolution wasn’t resolved by late October and by the EU which found it to be a ‘breach of human rights.’ The Stormont assembly which occurred earlier this week saw MPs attempt to resolve the devolution and, in many cases, to block the passing of the ‘Defence of the Unborn Child Bill’ and came about after Unionist parties demanded the assembly’s recall via petition. In order for a successful block, all sides both Unionist and Nationalist needed to remain present and able to vote: the nationalist SDLP left, thus the meeting ended after an hour. The result of this is that the UK government will find itself responsible for the extension of regulations regarding abortion before next April. 

Although this is monumental, and for many people an incredibly powerful and emotional moment, for many it is, understandably, underwhelming and disappointing. The nature in which the law passed raises intelligible concerns, regarding its integrity. Primarily, the passing resulting from failure to negotiate suggests that an incredibly significant amount of those in power remain opposed to the idea of abortion. Therefore, since its passing resulted from a lack of decision, there remains the threat of a future return to anti-abortion laws.

On a more ideological front, the essence of its being passed through failure to block is an incredibly underwhelming end to a discussion which has characterised Northern Irish politics for decades. For many people, the altering of such a significant aspect of Northern Irish culture should have come in a more decisive and final way which reflected the attitudes of the majority of the country. Therefore, the passing of such a significant change has somehow slipped under the radar and the traditional form of constitutional changes suggesting that this was the only way for controversial issues such as this to pass in Northern Ireland and emphasising the inevitability of such methods of change in the future. 

Charlotte Smith

Image: Geograph Ireland.