“Abortion is normal” ran the slogan in a poster campaign across Northern Ireland last autumn. Yet more than two years after it was legalized in the region – and a month before a deadline imposed by London for local officials to make it fully available – the situation is anything but.
Abortion was banned in Northern Ireland in virtually all circumstances for nearly 150 years until its legalization in October 2019. Now, on paper, the region has more progressive legislation on terminating pregnancies than the rest of the UK.
But, in practice, getting an abortion in Northern Ireland, despite its being permitted in many circumstances up to 24 weeks, can prove impossible.
A political impasse following the resignation of First Minister Paul Givan this month has hampered the Northern Ireland executive’s ability to introduce a new policy, keeping the prospect of abortion services being commissioned by the end of March uncertain. This has been exacerbated by the fact that most politicians are already looking ahead to the regional assembly elections on May 5 where other issues, such as the impasse of post-Brexit trading arrangements, are set to dominate.
That could force London to go over the head of the now leaderless executive.
Brandon Lewis, Northern Ireland secretary in Boris Johnson’s government, has said he is examining all legal options. Naomi Connor, co-convener of the Alliance for Choice campaign group, which commissioned the autumn billboard campaign said she had received assurances that Lewis intended to proceed if Belfast did not “but it’s not a definite. . . we don’t take anything for granted ”.
Belfast’s High Court this month rejected a challenge from the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children and upheld Lewis’ right to press ahead on the issue, which has spent a political football for months.
Givan’s exit from the power-sharing administration automatically triggered that of Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill under the region’s intricate political rules, but left other ministers in their jobs with limited functions.
Even when the executive had been working fully, however, Health Minister Robin Swann failed to commission the services arguing that cross-party approval was needed for controversial and significant decisions.
The issue has long been contentious in socially conservative Northern Ireland, where women have a history of traveling across the Irish Sea for terminations they could not get at home. Northern Ireland still criminalized abortion even as the Republic legalized it in 2018.
“It’s been so many years and we still don’t have real free, safe, local abortion,” said Elizabeth Nelson, a writer and activist. “You have to keep pushing for rights you know you’re entitled to.”
Because of their pro-life convictions, many unionists – who have traditionally made up the political majority and who staunchly defend Northern Ireland’s place within the UK – have opposed granting women the same abortion rights as women in Britain. There, despite more restrictive legislation, abortions are in practice freely available.
Indeed, Givan’s Democratic Unionist party tried just before Christmas to limit legalization via a bill seeking to outlaw abortion in the case of severe foetal abnormality, saying it would discriminate against foetuses with Down’s syndrome and other non-fatal disabilities.
At a vote in the Stormont assembly – during which Jim Allister, leader of the hardline Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) asked “does disability deserve death?” – the proposal was defeated by two votes.
“For the first time ever we have a pro-choice majority in Stormont,” said Connor, who herself traveled to Britain for an abortion almost a decade ago. “But there’s no guarantee that this [commissioning of abortion services] will be done by March 2022. ”
In some parts of Northern Ireland, abortions are currently available up to 10 weeks, using pills, and the health department said more than 2,550 abortions have been provided since March 2020.
The law allows for later abortions, but women who are more than 10 weeks pregnant still need to travel to Britain in the absence of fully commissioned services in Northern Ireland. Although the trip and the procedure is free, Covid-19 has made it more difficult.
The Northern Irish law provides unrestricted access to abortions up to 12 weeks. Abortions up to 24 weeks are allowed if the risk of physical or mental harm outweighs the risk of abortion and they can even be performed later if the mother could die or the foetus is unlikely to survive.
Despite some opinion polls showing strong support in Northern Ireland, the procedure remains stigmatized. The Alliance for Choice’s posters were defaced within days and the billboard owners removed them within a week because of vandalism.
Northern Ireland’s law was changed after a UK High Court ruling in 2018 that it violated human rights. It fell to Westminster to legislate in 2019 because the Stormont power-sharing executive had collapsed over an energy scandal.
Stormont was restored in January 2020 and had been supposed to provide full abortion services by April of that year. After that deadline passed without services being set up, Lewis set the March 2022 deadline.
But Dawn Purvis, a former unionist and independent legislator who opened the first abortion clinic on the island of Belfast in 2012 on the basis that abortion was permitted in Northern Ireland if a mother risked death or serious mental or physical harm, was skeptical that local politicians would act. “I can’t see it. . . we’re in the mouth of an election here, ”she said.