Decriminalisation of Abortion in Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland has long enjoyed being an anomaly. Its people want to be citizens of the UK, yet it is geographically detached from the mainland and also legally detached from the 1967 Abortion Act. Instead, its unique pro-life reputation has been safeguarded by the provisions of the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act. In other words, unlike the rest of the UK, abortion has been almost entirely illegal in the Province for the last 158 years.

Alas, now that protection for the unborn and their mothers no longer exists. Here is the back story:

The abortion policy of the Province has been a devolved issue – to be determined by the members of the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont, not by politicians at Westminster. But in January 2017, the Stormont Assembly collapsed in a row between Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Pro-abortion MPs at Westminster seized upon this impasse and on 17 July 2019 succeeded in passing the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill through its final stages in the House of Lords by 182 vs. 37, and the next day through the Commons with a majority of 328 vs. 65. This Bill had cunningly been amended so that sections 58 and 59 of the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act would be repealed. The enactment date was set for 21 October. So, if Stormont was still defunct by that Monday at midnight, abortion would automatically be decriminalised across Northern Ireland, that is, removed from the criminal law and placed under medical regulation.

The pro-life counter plan was simple – the Assembly at Stormont must be reconvened. A fast-track private member’s measure, the Defence of the Unborn Child Bill 2019, was proposed in order to halt decriminalisation. Attempts were made to kick-start the Assembly. First, a Speaker had to be approved by all political factions, but Sinn Féin refused to turn up and other party members walked out. The sitting was abandoned after less than an hour.

The midnight deadline came and went. Abortion in Northern Ireland is now deregulated and available, on demand, for any and no reason, for up to 28 weeks. The Province has been transformed from a country that genuinely protected its unborn children to one that openly slaughters them. The most pro-life country suddenly has become the most pro-abortion country.

However, for the time being, abortion in Northern Ireland is in limbo, if not turmoil. A recent poll showed that 52% of its citizens oppose the new law. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Julian Smith MP, now has to draft a fresh legal framework for abortion. Then there must be a public consultation. In the meantime, abortion will be unregulated until the end of March 2020. Currently there are no abortion clinics in Northern Ireland, but by 31 March 2020 abortions must be provided by its state hospitals. And the status of conscientious objection remains unclear. An open letter opposing abortion in their country has recently been signed by 911 doctors, midwives and nurses. Some have vowed to quit their jobs rather than be forced to be involved in abortions.

And all this is just the start. Abortion campaigners intend to see abortion radically liberalised across the whole of the UK. They are currently seeking to hijack the Domestic Abuse Bill at Westminster in order to render the 1967 Abortion Act obsolete. If that occurs, abortion will be fully decriminalised in all four countries of the UK. The prospect is alarming. The entire UK will become an even more dangerous place for the unborn and their mothers.

John Ling

John Ling is a freelance speaker, writer and consultant bioethicist. He is the author of three books on bioethical issues. His personal website is where this and many other articles of interest can be found.

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