For the last few decades, Irish people have been familiarised with the image of a woman making the lonely journey across the Irish sea in an effort to seek medical care not available to them at home; however, for years this image was used with the focus of making the right to bodily autonomy widely available in the Republic. After the 2018 abortion referendum, the shift has focused to that same journey made by thousands in Northern Ireland with calls for ‘the North is Next’ being made. Up until recently, it seemed the struggle to gain access to bodily autonomy endured south of the border was mirrored in the North, however, in a recent landmark decision made by Belfast’s High Court, change is inevitably on the way in the six counties. The question is, however, when will this change come about?
Abortion was made illegal in NI with the introduction of the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act which criminalised the procurement of abortions in the UK as a whole; while the introduction of the 1967 Abortion Act made it possible for doctors to provide abortions, this was not extended across the Irish Sea to the North. Unlike what happened south of the border before the 2018 referendum, the authorities in Northern Ireland are strict on the use of abortion pills, with doctors being obliged to report incidents where a patient has informed them of use of such a pill. Stigma and fear of prosecution have dominated the talk on abortion for decades; this has led to calls for change which was eventually answered in the case brought by Sarah Ewart recently where the High Court in Belfast held that the NI abortion law infringes the European Convention on Human Rights.
Despite the High Court case, there is still a danger of returning to a situation where abortions are still illegal. The decision of whether to implement legislation to change abortion law in the North lies with Westminster as there is no sitting parliament in Stormont currently. Westminster have published new guidelines for medical professionals covering the period from the 22 October 2019 to 31 March 2020 in the event that the Stormont executive is not restored before the 21 October. This states that no criminal charges will be brought against people who have an abortion or against health professionals who provide someone with an abortion. However, there is still a fear that, with a possible return of the Stormont parliament, it’ll be back to the drawing board for pro-choice campaigners in the North.
Neasa Ní Bheaglaioch – Law Writer