Monday

13th Jul 2020

Opinion

Lost in Brexit chaos - abortion rights in Northern Ireland

  • On the back of Ireland's successful repeal campaign, the spotlight has now turned to Northern Ireland and there is an impetus amongst activists to see these draconian laws repealed and abortion decriminalised (Photo: William Murphy)

On the 26 May 2018, the day that Ireland voted 'yes' to repeal the eighth amendment from its constitution, I sat with other pro-choice activists in one of the few Irish pubs in Brussels as we watched the results roll in.

As the only person from Northern Ireland in the group, my emotions that day could best be described as bittersweet.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

Unlike the rest of the UK, abortion care is still illegal in Northern Ireland as the 1967 Abortion Act was never extended to the region.

Northern Irish abortion legislation is based on the 1861 Offences against the Person Act, and the 1945 Criminal Justice Act (NI), making abortion illegal in almost every circumstance and the law is one of the most restrictive in the world.

Between 2016/17, only 13 abortions took place in Northern Ireland.

On the back of Ireland's repeal campaign, the spotlight has now turned to Northern Ireland and there is an impetus amongst activists to see these draconian laws repealed and abortion decriminalised.

However, unlike Ireland's binding referendum, the political landscape in Northern Ireland and the wider UK has made the process for change much more difficult.

Three factors contribute to this difficult environment.

Firstly, the collapse of Stormont which houses Northern Ireland's devolved government and assembly which has been in suspension since January 2017; prime minister Theresa May's reliance on Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to secure a majority government; and lastly (and always) – Brexit.

Westminster and the Brexit blockade

Devolution enables Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales to self-govern on a number of regional matters, healthcare being one of them.

However, with no functioning devolved government in place, it means that abortion reform from within Northern Ireland is currently not possible.

This has meant that pro-choice activists have had to take the fight for abortion rights to Westminster (which has ultimate constitutional sovereignty over all regions) in order to navigate around the constitutional devolved barriers that are being instrumentalised by the Tory government to appease the anti-abortion DUP.

The DUP maintain that the region is as "British as Finchley [a north London suburb]" and must not diverge from the rest of the UK when it comes to Brexit and the border backstop - whilst also maintaining divergence on many other issues like abortion.

The irony is not lost on anyone in Northern Ireland.

The complexity of the challenges facing pro-choice activists is not helped by the fact that the clock is rapidly counting down to the UK's departure from the EU on the 29 March 2019.

The vast majority of legislation going through Westminster is Brexit-related; therefore, domestic issues – especially those from a distant province across the water – are sitting on the backburner.

In the meantime, it is estimated that three women a day travel from Northern Ireland to England for an abortion.

Legal challenges

By deploying a campaign strategy to prevent devolution from being used as a shield for inaction, activists are aiming to create a legal environment to put further pressure on the UK government.

The 2018 UN report by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, found that the UK is in violation of women's rights in Northern Ireland by restricting access to abortion.

On the back of this report, long-term campaigner Sarah Ewart is set to challenge Northern Ireland's abortion laws as a breach of human rights in the High Court for cases of fatal-foetal abnormalities.

Labour MP Diana Johnson has brought a private members bill to Westminster that proposes to decriminalise abortion in the whole of the UK, which means that, if successfully passed, current provisions for Northern Ireland will also be repealed.

This would leave a legal void around abortion.

Medical practitioners would still not be able to issue abortion pills; however, women who seek to procure the pills online would no longer have to fear prosecution.

While this avenue would not provide a sustainable solution, it would require the UK government to act.

While Brexiteers rampage on in their perceived battle for Britain's sovereignty, freedom of movement has enabled me to gain back sovereignty over my own body.

Living in Belgium has allowed me to access rights I would not have back home in Northern Ireland.

Like so many other aspects of the UK at present, uncertainty will continue to prevail for abortion rights in Northern Ireland unless something fundamental changes.

However, the one certainty that can be guaranteed is that activists will continue to remind the UK government that human rights are not a devolved matter.

Emma Rainey is a committee member of Repeal Brussels, a campaign for abortion rights for the island of Ireland

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

EU court adds to knife-edge Brexit drama

EU judges have granted the UK the right to unilaterally stop Brexit - amid question marks on whether Tuesday's crunch vote in London will take place.

May on whistle-stop EU tour to seek new backstop pledges

The British prime minister dramatically delayed a parliamentary vote on the Brexit deal at the last minute, as she faced defeat. Theresa May will now speed-tour EU capitals to try to secure further political guarantees.

Norway plays politics with abortion laws

Norway's conservative prime minister, Erna Solberg, has proposed tightening the country's abortion laws, in a political gambit that goes against Europe's liberal trend.

EU's 'old men' must pressure Poland on abortion rights

Despite fresh crackdowns on Poland's already restrictive abortion laws, EU commission president Juncker did not raise the issue with the new Polish PM Morawiecki - perhaps because it was an all-male event?

Tough questions for Dalli and Suica on gender rights

Helena Dall's biggest challenge as equality commissioner will be securing EU accession to the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, while Dubravka Suica as demography commissioner must reassure on abortion and contraceptives.

News in Brief

  1. Croatia opens for US tourists, defying EU ban
  2. Poll: only 61% of Germans would get Covid-19 vaccine
  3. UK to spend €788m on new UK-EU border control system
  4. Berlin wants first use of EU cyber sanctions on Russia
  5. Erdogan warns neighbours over hydrocarbon reserves
  6. Bulgaria: political crisis amid anti-corruption protests
  7. Pope and Turkish-German leader join Hagia Sophia protest
  8. France and UK create joint migrant intelligence unit

Revealed: fossil-fuel lobbying behind EU hydrogen strategy

As with the German government – which presented its own hydrogen strategy last month – the European Commission and other EU institutions appear to be similarly intoxicated by the false promises of the gas industry.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNESDANext generation Europe should be green and circular
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNEW REPORT: Eight in ten people are concerned about climate change
  3. UNESDAHow reducing sugar and calories in soft drinks makes the healthier choice the easy choice
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersGreen energy to power Nordic start after Covid-19
  5. European Sustainable Energy WeekThis year’s EU Sustainable Energy Week (EUSEW) will be held digitally!
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic states are fighting to protect gender equality during corona crisis

Latest News

  1. Poland's EU-battles to continue as Duda wins tight vote
  2. EU 'in-person' summit plus key data privacy ruling This WEEK
  3. Let's have positive discrimination for EU stagiaires
  4. We need to do more for our small and medium-sized enterprises
  5. Romania's virus surge prompts queues and new worries
  6. Michel lays out compromise budget plan for summit
  7. Border pre-screening centres part of new EU migration pact
  8. EU 'failed to protect bees and pollinators', report finds

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us