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Since Ireland voted to change its abortion laws in the referendum of 2018 there have been many calls to bring the laws in Northern Ireland in line with those in the rest of the UK and across most of Europe. Steps are now being taken that could see these laws being updated.
Northern Ireland sits in an unusual position when it comes to abortion laws, especially since the recent changes were made in the neighbouring Republic of Ireland. The laws in Northern Ireland are so restrictive that they were recently judged to be in breach of the UK’s human rights commitments under article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Currently, women in Northern Ireland can only have an abortion if it is needed in order to save her life or to prevent permanent, serious damage to her mental or physical health. Women who want o to end their pregnancies for other reasons can only do so by travelling to another part of the UK or over the border into Ireland. This is why women from Northern Ireland sometimes seek care at private abortion clinics in London. Although this can be a good choice for some women, it isn’t always available or convenient for everyone.
The recent high court case that challenged Northern Ireland over these restrictive laws was brought by Sarah Ewart, who was forced to travel to London in 2013 when she was unable to arrange an abortion at home. The laws were so restrictive that they prevented her from having a termination despite the diagnosis of a fatal foetal abnormality. Doctors in Northern Ireland are prevented from helping even when the pregnancy has no chance of surviving.
The human rights judgement comes as Northern Ireland seems set for a change in its abortion laws. In the absence of an active assembly at Stormont since 2017, calls for changes to the laws in response to those in Ireland have struggled to be heard.
Although abortion has usually been considered a matter for the assembly, the issue was debated at Westminster in their absence. MPs voted in favour of decriminalising abortion in Norther Ireland if the assembly was still not sitting on 21 October 2019. The move would open up access to abortion advice in Northern Ireland and enable women to seek terminations for fatal foetal abnormalities. Further public consultation in Northern Ireland would also be held to enable the laws to be updated in response to their views.
The changes are expected to take effect despite the recall of the assembly following a petition signed by 31 of its members. The petition enabled a special sitting to be held to debate the move but it will not have the power to pass any legislation. Although there is some evidence of a shift in attitudes it remains to be seen how Northern Ireland’s abortion laws will change in the near future.