Socialist Worker

Northern Ireland abortion law changes are a victory—but the struggle goes on

by Gabby Thorpe
Issue No. 2676

Campaigning for abortion rights in Derry, Northern Ireland

Campaigning for abortion rights in Derry, Northern Ireland (Pic: Alliance for Choice Derry/Twitter)


Abortion will be decriminalised in Northern Ireland on 21 October—if a devolved Northern Irish government does not meet before then.

It will mark an historic turn for the pro-choice campaign there. The change will repeal two sections of the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act.

This law still governs abortion law in England and Wales, with the 1967 Abortion Act only permitting abortions in certain limited circumstances.

Repealing the 1861 Act offers new opportunities for activists elsewhere to fight for more progressive legislation that enshrines in law a woman’s right to choose.

Some 1,053 women travelled from Northern Ireland to England and Wales to have abortions last year.

Those who travel to access services face harsh punishment upon their return.

Pro-choice activists in Derry

Pro-choice activists in Derry (Pic: Alliance for Choice Derry/Twitter)


Addressing a pro-choice rally in September, civil rights campaigner Bernadette McAliskey said, “We are not asking people with deeply held convictions to make choices against their conscience. We are asking for the right to make choices ourselves.

“And not to have the theology, ideology, or culture of dominance imposed on our thinking and our choices.”

Under new rules, women who currently face punishment will have all charges dropped.

The changes come 52 years after abortion was decriminalised in the rest of Britain. The government in Westminster had previously claimed that abortion rights were a devolved issue.

Majorities

In order for legislation to pass in Northern Ireland, both unionist and nationalist majorities are required.

This means anti-abortion bigots such as the Democratic Unionist Party, backed by their friends in Westminster, can block a vote on abortion rights. They have used this veto 80 times.

But the government there collapsed in 2017, and no replacement has been formed. Campaigns such as

Repeal the 8th in Ireland—which successfully overturned an amendment criminalising abortion last year—have put enormous pressure on Northern Ireland to follow suit.

At the beginning of the month, the court of human rights in Belfast ruled that denying abortion is contrary to human rights laws.

This was after Sarah Ewart travelled to England to obtain an abortion upon finding out that the foetus had an abnormality that meant it could not survive outside her womb.

The court finding and the upcoming changes are a massive victory. But there is currently no framework in place to give women legal access to abortion.

Northern Ireland is expected to put these in place by March 2020.

Church leaders and even some medical professionals have demanded that a government be formed to halt the amended act.

And new guidelines say that midwives with a moral objection to abortion can refuse to provide information on services.

There is still a fight to be had to ensure that women have safe and legal access to abortion, wherever it is needed. Socialists must support a woman’s right to choose.


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