Why abortion law reform is needed

Abortion law in Northern Ireland: Time for Change

Northern Ireland laws which force women to continue pregnancy against their will:

  • are inhumane and contravene human rights
  • are ineffective and damaging to women’s health
  • perpetuate gender-based discrimination and inequality
  • are not in line with public opinion.

Laws which force women to continue pregnancy against their will are inhumane and contravene human rights

While health and criminal policy in Northern Ireland are devolved matters, the UK government has responsibility for ensuring all parts of the UK meet their obligations with regards to international conventions and treaties. This includes those related to human rights.

The UK has been continually criticised for its failure to meet its duties with regard to reproductive and human rights.

  • In February 2018, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) said that the UK is responsible for "grave" and "systematic" violations of women’s rights in Northern Ireland by unduly restricting their access to abortion.
  • In June 2018, the UK Supreme Court ruled that the law on abortion is incompatible with the right to respect for private and family life guaranteed by article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Lord Mance stated the law is "untenable" and in need of "radical reconsideration" due to the "ongoing suffering" it causes. Read the court judgement (PDF).

Laws which force women to continue pregnancy against their will are ineffective and damaging to women’s health

  • Abortion rates are roughly the same in countries where access is restricted compared to countries where access isn’t restricted (37 versus 34 per 1,000 women of childbearing age). Factsheet on worldwide abortion rates (PDF).
  • Only 13 abortions were carried out in Northern Ireland in 2016/17, but in 2017 at least 861 women were forced to travel to England to access services that are legally available and readily accessible in all other parts of the UK.
  • Some people risk prosecution by accessing abortion medication online. If they require medical support, the Criminal Law Act combined with ongoing criminal prosecutions are likely to act as a deterrent to them seeking the support they need, putting their health at risk.

Laws which force women to continue pregnancy against their will perpetuate gender-based discrimination and inequality

Women in Northern Ireland face daily discrimination and inequality through the denial of equal access to healthcare.

Restrictive reproductive laws limit their options to continuing with a forced pregnancy, travelling overseas to receive the healthcare they need, or risking criminal sanctions by taking medication sourced online.

  • While the provision of free reproductive services for women from Northern Ireland in other parts of the UK is welcome, it is not a substitute for a comprehensive reform of the law.
  • It also excludes many people who are unable or unwilling to travel. This includes victims of domestic violence, refugees without confirmed immigration status who are unable to travel, those who are too young to travel alone and those with complex health needs.

Laws which force women to continue pregnancy against their will are not in line with public opinion

The 2016 Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey (PDF) showed that:

  • 81% believe abortion should be legal if the fetus has a fatal abnormality
  • 78% believe abortion should be legal if a woman becomes pregnant because of rape or incest.

A survey commissioned by Amnesty International in 2016 found:

  • 58% believe abortion should be decriminalised so women faced no criminal charges. Only 22% opposed this.

A Sky News poll from April 2018 found that:

  • 54% of respondents supported unrestricted access to abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Only 30% opposed this.