Northern Ireland is set to drop its long-standing ban on nearly all abortions and permit same-sex marriages, opening the door to revolutionary social changes that overturn laws dating back more than 100 years.
Northern Ireland’s abortion law will be repealed as of Tuesday, ending one of the most restrictive regimes in Europe. Same-sex marriages will also be allowed as of January, bringing the province in line with the rest of Britain, which changed its marriage laws five years ago.
The biggest impact will be the change to abortion, which has been a contentious issue in Northern Ireland for decades. The province’s legislation dates back to 1861 and it makes abortion illegal in almost every circumstance, including cases of sexual assault and incest. The maximum punishment is life in prison for any woman seeking the procedure and any doctor performing it. The rest of the United Kingdom modified its abortion laws in 1967, but Northern Ireland did not follow suit. As a result, more than 1,000 women travel to England for abortions every year and about the same number use medication bought online.
It’s not clear yet what will replace the law and officials have six months to come up with new regulations for the delivery of abortion services. But abortion will no longer be a criminal offence as of Tuesday and the regulations are likely to be comparable to the rest of the country.
Pro-choice activists celebrated the repeal and said decriminalization will also bring Northern Ireland in line with Ireland, which recently revised its abortion laws after a referendum last year that saw overwhelming support for change. ”From midnight [Monday] history will be made, these oppressive laws that have policed our bodies and our health care will be brought to an end,” said Grainne Teggart a Northern Ireland campaigner for Amnesty International. "Finally our rights and our health care are being brought into the 21st century.”
Emma Campbell, a spokesperson for Northern Ireland’s Alliance for Choice, said five women were currently facing prosecution for violating the law and those cases will now be dropped. She added that most pregnant women in Northern Ireland who want an abortion can’t afford to travel to England and many buy unproven pills online or seek help elsewhere.
Pro-life groups called the repeal anti-democratic and said it had been imposed on the province by politicians in London who took advantage of a political deadlock in Belfast. Abortion and same-sex marriage are among several matters that are usually regulated by the provincial assembly, but the legislature hasn’t sat for nearly three years because of a dispute between the two main parties: the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein. As a result of the impasse, Northern Ireland has been effectively run from London and last July Members of Parliament at Westminster passed a law outlining how the province would be administered going forward. That legislation included provisions to repeal Northern Ireland’s abortion law and allow same-sex marriages. The legislation was to go into force after midnight on Oct. 22 if the assembly had not been restored.
On Monday the DUP, which supports the current abortion law and opposes same-sex marriage, made a last-minute pitch to convene the assembly to thwart the Westminster legislation. Sinn Fein refused to participate and after one hour the legislature adjourned. The DUP’s leader, Arlene Foster, said the party will to try to reverse the new regulations once the legislature returns. “This is not the end of the matter as far as this party is concerned. We will take every legal option available to us,” Ms. Foster told the assembly.
Groups on both sides of the issue gathered outside the assembly on Monday. “The way Westminster did this in July was to disregard the people of Northern Ireland,” said Dawn McAvoy, co-founder of Both Lives Matter. “They refused to give us a public consultation on whether the law would change.”
Sarah Ewart, who won a court challenge over the law earlier this month, called the change “monumental.” Ms. Ewart was denied a termination in 2013 even though doctors said her baby had a rare brain condition and would not live outside the womb. She was told that since her own life wasn’t at risk, she had to continue the pregnancy until miscarriage. She eventually had an abortion in London and challenged the law in court. On Oct. 3, a High Court judge in Belfast ruled that Northern Ireland’s abortion law contravened human rights in cases of fatal fetal abnormality. Repealing the law “will not fix what I’ve had to go through but it will make it better for those who are coming after me," Ms. Ewart told reporters on Monday.
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.