The government proves, yet again, that it doesn’t care about women in Northern Ireland

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Women* in Northern Ireland have been let down, yet again, by a government hundreds of miles away, that they did not vote for, and that many of them do not want.

In the latest government failure to support women in Northern Ireland, it has been reported that, to protect its supply and confidence deal with the DUP, the Conservative government has blocked an attempt to decriminalise abortion across Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Once again, women’s rights, and women’s lives, have been sacrificed for political expediency.

Women’s needs and rights in Northern Ireland have been continuously ignored and  marginalised. The horror of the Magdalene Laundries were not confined to the Republic of Ireland. Women have been silenced in the name of the peace process. Social policy initiatives that would help women seem to be the lowest of priorities, and there is almost a total absence of programmes which seek to address the behaviour of men who are violent to women. Equal marriage rights have also been blocked, despite widespread support across Northern Ireland.

Too many Politicians in both Northern Ireland and Westminster have seemingly no interest in respecting, protecting and promoting the reproductive rights of the women of Northern Ireland.  

The Abortion Act 1967, which makes provision for women in England, Scotland and Wales to access legal abortions, was never extended to Northern Ireland. In 1967, Northern Ireland was governed by parliament at Stormont, and the issue of abortion was left for it to decide. Although there have been attempts at reform within the Northern Ireland Assembly, the DUP has blocked them all.

In 2008 Westminster did make a move towards extending the Abortion Act to NI, by adding an amendment to the Human Embryology and Fertilisation Bill. However the amendment was not discussed in the House of Commons and therefore fell away. There has been speculation that the Labour government of the time agreed not to try to change the abortion laws in Northern Ireland in return for DUP support for government plans to detain terrorism suspects without charge for 42 days.

In June 2018, a judgment of the Supreme Court held that the abortion in Northern Ireland is a breach of the Human Rights Act and amounts to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. The highest court in the United Kingdom has found that our government is responsible for laws which treat UK citizens in a cruel, inhuman and degrading manner.  Yet we have done nothing about it.

Stella Creasy MP made it clear last year that she intended to put down an amendment to the Domestic Abuse Bill which would have decriminalised abortion across the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland.  The government has reportedly blocked this move to appease the DUP. This is despite the amendment having the support of activists in Northern Ireland and cross party support in Westminster, and following it winning a vote in Parliament by 207 to 117.   

Creasy has said: “Trying to prevent decriminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland might keep [DUP leader] Arlene Foster happy, but it condemns 28 women a week to travelling to England for their right to choose..”

The continued suffering of the women in Northern Ireland is the UK’s greatest shame.  The government’s decision to actively block an attempt to change this law and help the women of Northern Ireland is sickening. The government is on the wrong side of history.

The women of Northern Ireland deserve justice and equality. #NowForNI

Polly Barklem

Campaigner for the London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign

What is the current situation?

Abortion is illegal in Northern Ireland except in very limited circumstances. The maximum criminal penalty imposed – life imprisonment for both the woman undergoing the abortion, and for any individual who assists her – is the harshest in Europe and among the harshest in the world. It is the product of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, a law passed when Queen Victoria was on the throne and before women could vote.

Only 12 abortions were carried out in Northern Ireland in 2017/2018. Over 900 women made the lonely, expensive journey to England for abortions. Unknown numbers bought illegal pills from the internet and induced abortions at home. Others, like so many before them, will have turned to unsafe methods in a bid to harm themselves enough to bring about miscarriage.

The threat of prosecution for abortion in Northern Ireland is real. Women and girls have been arrested for the use of abortion pills. In one recent case, a mother bought her 15-year old (pregnant as a result of statutory rape) abortion pills after the daughter became pregnant.  The police decided to prosecute after the family sought support, and social services reported the matter. The police were supplied with the daughter’s confidential GP records without her knowledge. It is clear human rights are being abused, and that reform in the law is needed.

*including Trans and non binary people

How you can help:

Get involved with / donate to / follow and retweet the following organisations:

Write to your MP and ask them to support the decriminalisation of abortion across the United Kingdom, including in Northern Ireland. You can find your MP using this tool:

Hannah Little