Without abortion reform, women in Northern Ireland will continue to be denied basic reproductive rights
Medical negligence solicitor Fiona Huddleston looks forward to changes in the law governing reproductive rights in Northern Ireland in 2019
Posted on 19 December 2018
This year was monumental for women’s rights in healthcare in the Republic of Ireland, with the Irish public voting overwhelming in favour of repealing the 8th amendment, which equates the life of a woman to that of the foetus. This was not only a crucial step for the women of the Republic of Ireland but it also brought into sharp focus the abortion rights, or lack thereof, of women across the whole of the isle of Ireland.
The momentum for change, to confer the same rights to women in Northern Ireland with those afforded to women in England, Wales and Scotland, has been building over the years. This is largely down to charities, politicians and the courts drawing attention to the fact that our abortion laws are not fit for purpose.
Abortion in the UK is underpinned by the oldest legal framework for any healthcare treatment. Current abortion laws date back to The Offences Against the Person Act 1861, passed at a time when women did not yet have the vote. Sections 58 and 59 of OAPA, make it a crime for a woman to have an abortion, and a crime to assist in causing an abortion.
The Abortion Act was passed in 1967. It legalised abortion in Great Britain in certain circumstances but not Northern Ireland. For women living in England, Scotland or Wales, it is the mother’s choice (to an extent). In Northern Ireland, women are denied this choice, even when the baby would be born with fetal abnormalities, when the foetus was conceived by rape or when continuing the pregnancy could put the mother’s health at risk of harm.
In March 2017, Diana Johnson MP proposed the Reproductive Health (Access to Terminations) Bill to amend sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 and decriminalise consensual abortions. MPs voted in favour of the bill passing to its second reading but it subsequently fell.
On 25 May 2018 the Republic of Ireland voted to repeal the 8th amendment following an inspirational TOGETHER FOR YES campaign which saw a number of leading doctors alongside midwives, nurses and other medical professionals throw their hats firmly into the ring, advocating for the 8th Amendment to be repealed.
Shortly after this Stella Creasy MP obtained cross party support for a debate on Northern Irish abortion reform, which took place on 5 June 2018. Creasy proposed a solution to interfering in devolved issues making an impassioned address, calling for repeal of sections 58 and 59 of the OAPA.
Two days later a Supreme Court judgment was handed down which ruled that the current Northern Ireland abortion law with regards to cases of rape, incest, or fatal foetal anomaly is in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and causes women in the province to endure “untold suffering and desolation”. Leigh Day represented a coalition of healthcare charities and women’s rights organisations at the Supreme Court hearing (which took place October 2017) alongside the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC). The Government’s response to the Supreme Court judgment however was and continues to be that is a “devolved matter”.
Creasy persisted in her efforts, which resulted in the Sunday Times publishing a letter to the Government signed by 173 parliamentarians from the UK and Ireland and called for parliament to set out a legislative timetable for repealing sections 58 and 59 of OAPA and decriminalising abortion.
In their letter the parliamentarians point out that when parties signed up to the Good Friday agreement, “they did soon the basis that Northern Ireland’s laws would be compliant with the European convention on Human Rights (ECHR).”
Johnson built upon the momentum and on 23 October 2018 introduced the Abortion Bill, which would remove criminal liability in respect of abortion performed with the consent of the pregnant woman up to the 24th week of pregnancy and repeal sections 59 and 60 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. Johnson eloquently pointed out how out of touch the current legislation is “It is time to remove Victorian, misogynistic stigma from our abortion laws. My aim is simple - women able to choose what happens to their own bodies; confident, not criminalised, supported, not stigmatised; women able to access professional advice and medical care that its regulated effectively; and an Act of Parliament that is fit for now, not for 51 years ago, and certainly not for 157 years ago. "
Johnson's bill is supported by the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare and charities including Amnesty International and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service. The House of Commons voted overwhelming in favour of the bill, 208-123. (The second reading of the bill will take place on 25 January 2019).
The following day Creasy came at it from another angle and proposed, along with Conor McGinn MP, amendments to The Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Bill. The amendments were passed which means that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland must provide guidance on the incompatibility of human rights legislation with the law on abortion in Northern Ireland.
This was a significant moment with MPs indicating their growing opposition to the disparity between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK when it comes to social and moral issues.
It is encouraging to see the unrelenting determination of MPs such as Johnson and Creasy, and cross party recognition that the current situation, in which the women of NI are being denied basic human rights, should not be tolerated any longer.
It is vital that there is continued pressure on the Government to intervene on an urgent basis and ensure that women in Northern Ireland are afforded the same reproductive rights as the rest of the women in the UK.
We can only hope that the continued pressure will see 2019 as the year when the laws governing reproductive rights for women across the UK finally become appropriate for the 21st century.