Fighting for abortion rights in Northern Ireland


In the North of Ireland, abortion is prohibited under the Offences Against the Persons Act (1861) - with some common law exceptions.  If continuation of the pregnancy threatens the life of the woman, or would adversely affect her mental and physical health where the effects are ‘real and serious’ or ‘long term’, are two such examples.

An academic survey claims that the majority of gynaecologists in Northern Ireland "do not support the current abortion law as it stands". Many also say they would carry out abortions under certain conditions. Sexual health charity FPA said this "rubbished" claims by anti-choice groups and politicians that "there is no place for abortion in NI". Of 42 gynaecologists working in Northern Ireland, 37 took part in the survey giving a response rate of 88%. (The survey, 'Attitudes and practice of gynaecologists towards abortion in Northern Ireland' (2009), was conducted by Colin Francome, Emeritus Professor in the Sociology of Health, at Middlesex University, England)

The recent opening of the Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast provides abortions for women up to nine weeks via the abortion pill and also provides other sexual health services - at a cost of up to £400 - £2000 for the consultation and care including the abortion pill. The abortion pill, or misoprostol, will terminate a pregnancy up to 12 weeks (a woman needs 12 pills of misoprostol to end a pregnancy - more info). 


Due to the lack of adequate abortion provision for women here, 40 women a week leave Ireland to obtain abortions in mainland UK. Those who cannot afford to travel and have no options fall victim to unscrupulous internet scams which claim to be selling the abortion pill, or in desperation go to loan sharks of which there has been a rise since the introduction of the austerity measures across the board – putting these women and their families into serious debt.

In the 2009 case to remove Department of Heath guidelines on Terminations for the medical profession, Lord Justice Girvan claimed that giving advice as to the availability of abortion services elsewhere in the UK was ‘arguably unlawful’.  The European Court of Human Rights decided in a case against Ireland in 1992 that prohibiting women from receiving such information was a breach of fundamental rights in the European Convention.

Lord Justice Girvan put forward a proposed amendment in February of this year which would restrict even further the allowance of any abortions in the North to be carried out legally not under NHS and also restrict the limited legal framework.  This was despite the Marie Stopes clinic having been more than willing to receive any inspections/assessments set by the Dept of Health/Health Minister.  Edwin Poots, the current Health Minister, commented ‘If this is the backwoods, I’m glad we’re in it.’ – showing a complete disregard for women’s ability to make their own choices about healthcare and reflective of a wider effort to steer the abortion debate away from choice.


A Petition of concern was signed by Sinn Fein, Alliance and the Green Party –which  fortunately prevented the amendment being made.  However women’s legal right to abortion is under constant threat of attack from the right wing, predominantly Christian, male dominated Stormont Assembly who not only want to retain the control of women via reproductive rights and choices but support the continuance of the  unacknowledged labour of women, and ensuring in the wider context the  production of cheaper labour.

With the introduction of austerity measures we will see not only continuation of lack of provision for healthcare for women but a reinforcing of the status quo.  The only women having access to abortions, even within the common law restrictions of private healthcare at great cost, are middle and upper class women showing it is not a moral issue but a class issue. Again, the affordability of abortions appears to be the only difference between those who can obtain them and those who are forced to go through with an unwanted pregnancy.


What is needed is to continue to renew efforts to collectivise power, show solidarity with NI and ROI comrades to ensure the fight continues until free safe and legal abortion on demand for all women can be provided via the healthcare system in place - presently, the NHS. Alliance for Choice Belfast and Derry are very active in keeping the debate open and conversation going on the issue of access to abortion and will remain active until there is a referendum on abortion - via street protests, marches and continued lobbying efforts with the Assembly.

The cross border efforts between the North and the South show a strong support base for pro-choice campaigners. The tragic death of Savita Hallapanavar has united people despite its graveness to challenge the status quo for the life of women and their healthcare and raise questions about how to address the inequalities that exist.

The World Health Organisation information on abortion

WORDS: Maria

This guest article is the full version of the extract published in
Workers Solidarity 129, April May 2013