Northern Ireland Are Still Fighting To Legalise Abortion – Here’s Whats Been Going On So Far

A little explainer on the North's struggle for reproductive rights.

While Ireland rightfully celebrated the Yes vote in the abortion referendum on May 26th, Northern Ireland are still fighting for the right to legal and safe abortions.

Abortion is a devolved issue in Northern Ireland (meaning it’s up to the NI parliament to pass laws on it) and the Abortion Act 1967, which allows abortion in the rest of the UK, doesn’t apply there.

Like here, the laws in Northern Ireland have had very real consequences – in April 2016, a woman was given a suspended sentence for buying drugs online to induce an abortion.

So why does Northern Ireland not have the same abortion rights as the rest of the UK?

In 1967, an abortion act was established to legalise abortion in England, Scotland and Wales. However, at this time, the Parliament of Northern Ireland at Stormont was still making its own laws and there was no appetite from its leaders to follow what the UK were doing.

Since the referendum results in the Republic, campaigning for the legalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland has taken on a new urgency – earlier today, human rights campaigners lost a UK Supreme Court appeal over the legality of Northern Ireland’s strict abortion law.

The court dismissed the attempt to overturn the law, but agreed that the law was incompatible with European human rights and added that pressure should be put on politicians to change it.

Can they hold a referendum on the issue?

Abortion rights groups have been firmly opposing a referendum on the issue in Northern Ireland, instead calling for reform from British parliament.

Many MPs in Britain have been debating the possibility of reforming the abortion law, but Prime Minister Theresa May believes that the priority now should be the reform of government in Northern Ireland. Her own government is currently being propped up by ultra-conservative NI party the DUP, and it’s believed that she doesn’t want to do anything to upset this arrangement.

This is where we have to backtrack a little bit. The NI government came tumbling down in January last year when the late Martin McGuinness resigned as Deputy First Minister. This means that, for over one year, Northern Ireland has had no official government.

Although Downing Street are holding firm on their view that the NI government should resolve the issue, there have been debates on it in Westminster. Labour MP Stella Creasy has won wide cross-party support for debating the possibility of reforming the 1861 abortion law, asking MPs to trust women and “join the 21st century.”

But she has also received significant online abuse for stating that she wishes for women in Northern Ireland to no longer be criminalised for having an abortion.

In a debate on Tuesday, Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley has said she personally backs abortion reform, but agreed with May that the Northern government must be restored first.

Who is campaigning for abortion reform in the North?

Northern Irish abortion rights groups have been campaigning non-stop on the back of the Republic of Ireland’s referendum. A few days after the Yes vote, women took to the streets of Belfast with the group Solidarity with Repeal calling for a change in abortion legislation in Northern Ireland.

On May 30th, campaigners along with the Irish group ROSA (Reproductive Rights Against Oppression, Sexism and Austerity), protested in Belfast wearing Handmaids Tale costumes.  Women at the protest took what they claim were abortion pills in front of police during it, with one woman taking it in front of a TV camera. The pills were later seized by police, along with a number of pills which given up voluntarily by protesters.

Before the Irish referendum, Alliance for Choice was a group fighting for abortion rights in Ireland, North and South – now it has turned its attention solely to Northern Ireland, supported by Together For Yes.

This Sunday (June 10th) Alliance for Choice are holding a march in Belfast for reproductive rights. This protest is part of the Processions march, which is honouring 100 years since women got the right to vote and stand for public office.

Buses have been organised by Together For Yes groups throughout the country for those who wish to travel to Belfast to the march – to find your local group, click here.

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