‘Women & girls betrayed’: Northern Irish Assembly rejects abortion law change

© Regis Duvignau
Members of the Northern Irish Assembly have voted against proposals to relax strict abortion laws. Human rights groups said the decision has “betrayed women and girls.”

The Stormont assembly voted 59 to 40 against the legislation, which proposed to allow abortions in the case of fatal fetal abnormality and sexual crime. 

Amnesty International said the decision will allow Northern Ireland to maintain its “Victorian” and “restrictive” laws, and called on the devolved authority to bring its legislation in line with the rest of the UK.

Despite a debate which lasted until nearly midnight, the outcome of the vote was predictable, after the Democratic Unionists and the SDLP announced they would not support amendments to the law.

Abortion is permitted in the rest of the UK under the 1967 Abortion Act, but in Northern Ireland terminations are only allowed if the mental health or life of the mother is in danger.

The change to legislation was proposed by Alliance Party members Trevor Lunn and Stewart Dickson. Lunn told the assembly his decision was sparked by the “painful” decision to access an abortion many years ago due to a fatal fetal condition.

In December last year, Belfast’s High Court ruled that abortion law in Northern Ireland breaches the European Convention on Human Rights.

Patrick Corrigan, Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland program director, said the laws are draconian and in need of urgent change.

“Northern Ireland’s abortion law dates from Victorian times, is among the most restrictive in the world and is in urgent need of reform. A vote to stymie change today is a further betrayal of women and girls who will continue to be forced to travel outside Northern Ireland to seek the healthcare they are denied at home.”

He said between 1,000 and 2,000 women are forced to travel abroad each year to find abortions, and “are made to feel like criminals for having done so.”

“An extensive consultation on this issue was already conducted by the Department of Justice in 2014/2015 – it recommended a change to the law with regard to access to abortion on fatal fetal abnormality. The DUP and other Executive Ministers have had eight months to get behind the proposal from the Justice Minister and have failed to do so. More talk will tell us nothing we do not already know – that the law on abortion in Northern Ireland is unfit for purpose.”