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Abortion laws in Northern Ireland

This series of What's Up TV sees us return to Northern Ireland. On this trip we found out about the laws surrounding abortion and how they differ from the est of the UK. Catch the report this weekend (14th September) in episode 6.

Unlike the rest of the UK, the 1967 Abortion Act does not extend to Northern Ireland, the country has one of the most restrictive abortion Laws in Europe. Women who have abortions can face life imprisonment. Therefore, there only option is to travel abroad to access basic healthcare, making a traumatic experience even more horrendous. Even in cases of rape, incest and fatal foetal anomaly, abortion is not allowed. The only time it is permitted is when there is a risk to the mother’s life or a serious risk to her physical or mental health. Shockingly, even when the foetus has no chance of survival, a woman must go through the traumatic experience of carrying it to term. How can this be the case for our fellow British Citizens?

I went to Northern Ireland to investigate this matter:

Travelling for an abortion is a difficult experience, those women who must travel aboard for an abortion face trauma, stigma, and humiliation, not to mention the serious pain they face when travelling after the abortion. 80% of people in Northern Ireland believe that a woman should have the choice to abort when her health is at risk and two thirds think that abortion should be decriminalised. The majority support abortion, however, it has been the government that has repeatedly let them down. Since January 2017, NI has not had a functioning government.

The government's power must be shared between two different political parties. This is a result of something called the Good Friday Agreement, which came about to bring peace to Northern Ireland. The First Minister and Deputy First Minister lead the government - one representing each of the two parties in power. Together, they are referred to as the Northern Ireland Executive. But two years ago, there was a power-sharing argument between the two governing parties, the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) and Sinn Fein, which led to the government at Stormont being dissolved. One of the main problems facing NI now is that there aren't any ministers in charge to make decisions about important issues that affect life for people in the country. Abortion is strongly opposed by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which until recently had a ‘confidence and supply arrangement’ with Theresa May's Conservative Party. This means that they agree to back the Conservatives on main issues. In exchange for a £1b financial package, the DUP's 10 Westminster MPs will give May a working parliamentary majority and support on certain issues. However, this put the prime minister in a difficult position when it came to supporting a change in Northern Irish law.

The last census of 2011 put the Protestant population at 48%, just 3% more than Catholics at 45%. More recent figures from 2016 show that among those of working age 44% are now Catholic and 40% Protestant. In NI, God is a political influencer, several politicians have faith and boldly talk about it. That makes NI different to many other countries in the Western World. Religion governs the law. Protestant and Catholic churches in NI have quietly co-operated to oppose moves to update the law, with the late Ian Paisley, founder of both the Free Presbyterian church and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), leading the way. As a result, thousands of Northern Irish women have ended up travelling to England to terminate pregnancies.

The pre-historic current law- Offence Against the Person Act (1861), which currently makes it illegal for a woman to have an abortion outdates the lightbulb. Recent events in states like Georgia and Alabama have brought a lot of attention to the press. Seeing anyone fighting for their basic rights is difficult, but when you see the UK press give them more coverage than one of its own countries, you have to think twice.

From talking to both pro-life and pro-choice believers it was hard to see if Northern Ireland will follow suit like the Republic of Ireland who last year repealed the 8th Amendment and made abortion legal. In a country were religion governs the law and the predicament of having a devolved government, let's hope more of a spotlight is put on the women who have been denied the rights to control their own body and, in some cases, go through some really horrendous experiences. Is access to abortion, a woman’s health and human rights issue? Should it be regulated like any other medical care and not by criminal law? But most importantly, can a woman really call her herself free if she cannot control her own body? The North is Next.

If you looking for support or would like more information on abortion please have a look through the links below:

BPAS - British Pregnancy Advisory Service

Marie Stopes UK


Sexual Health Charity

FPA’s Pregnancy Choices Counselling Service is the only service that offers counselling, support and information on all options for women in Northern Ireland.

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