Abortion decriminalised in Northern Ireland
Amongst all the carry-on in Westminster, you may have missed that in Northern Ireland this week abortion was decriminalised and same-sex marriage legalised. Admittedly, it was only because a dispute between the DUP and Sinn Fein caused the Stormont Assembly (the devolved legislature with the coolest name) to step out for a whole two years, but we’re not going to look a gift horse in the mouth.
This is of course a massive step forward for the feminist cause in Northern Ireland and brings the country in line with Ireland, who began offering abortion services in January of this year. A woman who was in the midst of a six-year-long prosecution for buying abortion pills has been formally acquitted. The UK is now obliged to ensure that safe and free abortion services can be accessed by March 2020. Gay couples living in NI celebrated.
However, does this bring Northern Ireland in line with the rest of the UK? It actually doesn’t. Under the Abortion Act 1967, abortion is technically still a criminal offence in the UK except in specific circumstances, including risk to the physical or mental health of the mother. It is for the most part openly acknowledged that people with uteruses can obtain an abortion in the UK if they want one. But we have to recognize that something that is illegal in a way that generally isn’t enforced is not the same as something being decriminalised.
The legislation that decriminalised abortion in Northern Ireland did so by repealing sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act (which is from 1861), which remains in effect in the rest of the UK, including Scotland. On top of that, the crime carries with it a sentence of up to life. What does this tell us about the attitude the UK has towards abortion?
In order for the right to choose to be fully realised, we need to remove the stigma that surrounds abortion, and that includes genuinely decriminalising it. It is impossible to claim that getting an abortion in the UK is completely stress-free when the act itself is still branded as criminal, by a law that was passed in Victorian times, and only amended in the 1960s. We need to remove the ghost of a prison sentence that still haunts obtaining an abortion – there will be no punishment, so why can’t that legislation just be repealed?
It’s time for the UK to stop having it both ways – abortion is available to every woman, trans and non-binary person when they need it, it is safe and free, and it is not a crime. Let’s remove any legislation that still says it is.
Caitlin Flavell, Political Editor
Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images