What is the 1967 Abortion Act and why was it never extended to Northern Ireland?

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By: Kerrie Ann Rowan

There has been a lot of media coverage about the Abortion Act 1967 (‘the Act’) because of its 50th anniversary this month – but why should we care about it? Why is the Act important? What does it say? And, why doesn’t it apply to Northern Ireland?

Why is the Act important?

Abortion is a criminal offence in the UK. The Act is important because it decriminalises abortion in Great Britain (England, Scotland & Wales), in certain circumstances.

What does the Act actually say?

The Act says that a person shall not be guilty of a criminal offence when a pregnancy is terminated by a doctor, where two doctors are of the opinion that— 

  1. The pregnancy has not exceeded its twenty-fourth week and would involve a risk of physical or mental injury to the pregnant woman or any of her children; or
  2. The termination is necessary to prevent really serious injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman; or
  3. The pregnancy would involve risk to the life of the pregnant woman; or
  4. There is a substantial risk that if the child were born it would be seriously handicapped.

When considering whether the pregnancy would involve a risk of injury to physical or mental health, doctors can take into account a woman’s social or financial circumstances. There has been widening discussions that the 1967 Abortion Act, where it applies, should be updated to expand access. The Act also says that abortions can only be carried out in certain hospitals and it contains a ‘conscientious objection’ clause; this means that no one can be required to participate in a termination if they object to it on moral or religious grounds. The Act does not regulate the morning after pill.

Why does the Act not apply to Northern Ireland?

The Act was introduced to Westminster in 1967 as a result of David Steel’s private member’s bill (i.e. not introduced by the Government of the time, but with its support). This was the 7th attempt since 1953 by a private member to introduce an abortion bill. The issue was perceived
as too divisive for any Government to introduce the bill themselves. In 1967, Northern Ireland had its own Parliament, responsible for making its own laws. Therefore, legislation passed in the rest of the UK would not take effect in Northern Ireland unless its own government chose to implement the same or similar legislation at the same time. Northern Ireland’s parliament did not introduce the Act and as a result, the law there has remained unchanged for over 70 years.

Northern Ireland is still governed by the Criminal Justice Act (NI) 1945, which makes abortion illegal except under very limited circumstances. Abortion is only permissible where it is necessary to preserve the life of the mother. The Court of Appeal has said that the words "preserving the life of the mother" are not limited to saving the mother from death: they cover cases where pregnancy would make her a physical or mental wreck (R v Bourne [1939] 1 K.B. 687).

Abortion is still not permissible in Northern Ireland in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, rape or incest. The High Court in Belfast has found this to be in violation of human rights law, namely the right to family and private life, protected by Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. That decision is currently being appealed to the UK Supreme Court. As a result of the current law, most Northern Irish women who need an abortion must travel to receive the services they require.

So while we can celebrate the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of abortion in Great Britain, there is still more work to be done to protect the reproductive rights of those who have been left behind.

This Saturday, we'll be joining Abortion Rights UK at ‘Beyond the Backstreet – Fighting for Abortion Rights 50 Years on’ to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Abortion Act.
You can get tickets here. 

Hannah Little