Northern Ireland news

Q&A: What will abortion reform actually mean for north?

Abortions up to 24 weeks are due to be made legal within months in the biggest social change in Northern Ireland for decades. Claire Simpson looks at what the change may mean.

The north's abortion laws are set to change in October

FOR decades, the north has had some of the strictest abortion laws in the western world with the procedure only allowed if a woman's life is at risk or there is a permanent risk to her health.

But that is all set to change by late October after MPs and peers voted to back moves to introduce abortion reform.

Unless a power-sharing assembly returns by October 21, terminations will be decriminalised the following day.

For the first time, abortion will be regulated and the threat of prosecution will be lifted.

But despite the huge change, confusion remains over what it will mean in practice.

The law will allow terminations where there is a risk to the woman's mental or physical health, in cases of serious and fatal foetal abnormalities and if the woman has been the victim of a sexual crime including rape or incest.

Terminations are expected to be allowed up to 24 weeks, in line with Britain.

What is still to be decided is how this will work in practice.

A 12-week consultation on how any new system will operate is due to begin in the autumn.


Abortion will be decriminalised after sections 58 and 59 of the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, which make the practice illegal, will be revoked.

Any cases brought in the north under the 1861 act, including that of a mother who bought abortion pills online for her then 15-year-old daughter, will be dropped.


During a debate in the House of Lords last week, Northern Ireland Office minister Lord Ian Duncan said there would be a period of "limbo" between repealing the sections of the 1861 act and the introduction of a new service.

Any new regime will not be introduced until the end of the public consultation.

Lord Duncan insisted that the limbo period would not be a "free for all".

Any final abortion regulations are due to be in place by March 31.


Following repeal of part of the 1861 act, the north will still be covered by the 1945 Criminal Justice Act which offers protection to foetuses over the age of 28 weeks.

At that time, a child born prematurely at 28 weeks was presumed to be able to survive. Medical advances have meant that children born a few weeks earlier now have a chance of survival.

Campaigners opposed to any change to abortion laws say the new service will effectively mean that terminations will be allowed in the north up to 28 weeks - four weeks longer than the limit in Britain. However, Lord Duncan said the government can "guarantee that no abortions will be carried out over 24 weeks".

"In this limbo period, it would be an offence under the 1945 Act as these would indeed be deemed to be viable, and would be children," he said.

He added: "After the new regime, we would not introduce legislation that allowed later abortions than are taken in England or Wales. We would seek harmony."


The consultation will look at how the service will work in practice.

It will examine questions including if GPs can prescribe abortion pills, which hospitals will perform abortions and whether medical staff can opt out of the procedure on the grounds of conscience.

Lord Duncan told the Lords last week that "we cannot compel any practitioner to act beyond their own conscience and we must make sure that is understood in the guidance that is issued thereafter".


Grainne Teggart, Northern Ireland campaigns manager for Amnesty UK, has long campaigned for a change in the law.

"The passing of this law will finally remove the near-total abortion ban so that women in Northern Ireland will have free, safe, legal and local access to the healthcare service, including in circumstances where there is risk to the woman’s health, in cases where a pregnancy is a result of rape or incest and where there is a serious or fatal foetal abnormality," she said.

"The law will mean abortion is decriminalised, which doesn’t mean it will be deregulated, simply that women will no longer be treated as criminals and face jail sentences for accessing the healthcare service.

"Regulations will be set out by March 31 next year."


Naomi Marsden from Christian Action Research and Education said the law change "raises some huge questions".

She said it was "completely unacceptable" that there will be a limbo period between October and March 2020 and claimed this will include "complete deregulation up to 28 weeks gestation"

Ms Marsden said some MPs want a 28-week abortion limit across the UK and may try and push this through by requesting an amendment to a bill which aims to make coercive control an offence in the north.

"Some pro-abortion MPs have spoken quite openly about trying to use the Domestic Abuse Bill to engineer the change to abortion law in the rest of the UK," she said.

Bernie Smyth from Precious Life said the law can only be stopped if the assembly returns or if someone mounts a legal challenge.

"That's why I think the Attorney General should step in," she said.

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