Thursday

21st Mar 2019

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the spotlight has now turned to Northern Ireland and there is an impetus amongst activists to see these draconian laws repealed and abortion decriminalised (Photo: William Murphy)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.

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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the spotlight has now turned to Northern Ireland and there is an impetus amongst activists to see these draconian laws repealed and abortion decriminalised.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

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