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Women in most parts of the UK have had access to safe, legal pregnancy terminations since the Abortion Act was passed in 1967. However, there is one part of the UK where this act doesn’t apply. Women in Northern Ireland still have very limited access to abortion care.
The Abortion Act allows women in England, Wales and Scotland to have abortions up to 24 weeks, with pregnancy termination allowed after that for medical reasons. Although there are some restrictions on the reasons why abortions can be performed, most women are able to have a termination when they need one.
The situation in Northern Ireland is very different. Pregnancy termination is only allowed in order to save the woman’s life or if there is a chance that her mental or physical health could be permanently and seriously damaged.
The disparity between abortion rights in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK has become more apparent since the rules changed in the neighbouring Republic of Ireland. Until recently, women in Ireland was also very limited. However, after a referendum on the matter in 2018, the law has changed. Women in Ireland are now able to access abortion on demand up to 12 weeks, with later abortions allowed for medical reasons.
Women in Northern Ireland are therefore denied the same access to care as those in the rest of the UK and their neighbours in Ireland. The only option for many women is to travel to other parts of the UK to have a pregnancy termination. Others have suffered complications because they weren’t able to access the care they needed during pregnancy. International bodies such as the UN have even raised concerns that the current situation is breaching human rights in Northern Ireland.
Given that Ireland has made such significant changes to its abortion policies, is it possible that Northern Ireland will soon follow suit? Despite support for these changes in Northern Ireland, it could be difficult to improve access for women in the region. Health policy is under the control of the devolved Northern Irish Assembly, but they have not been sitting since 2017. The socially conservative DUP also has a lot of sway in Westminster at the moment due to the minority government’s precarious hold on power. Even if this were not the case, it would clearly be problematic for the UK government to intervene in a devolved matter in Northern Ireland.
Women in Northern Ireland might not see the laws on pregnancy termination changing anytime soon, unless there is enough public pressure to do so. However, attitudes to abortion and the laws that regulate them can change quickly and dramatically, just as Ireland has shown.