Discrimination and denial: Abortion law in Northern Ireland

The United Kingdom unites England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. But not united in abortion law. In Northern Ireland, abortion is legal only when a mother’s life is immediately imperilled. Otherwise it is a criminal offence. 

Bright lights, but two very different big cities – London and Belfast may seem similar at first glance, but when it comes to giving women the right to choose whether to have children or not, they are worlds apart.

Under the 1967 Abortion Act, all British women are entitled to choose abortion. But in Belfast, the story is quite different. In a country where the 1861 ‘offences against the person act’ still stands, women cannot end their pregnancy unless their lives are threatened by it. Even in cases of rape, incest or foetal abnormality this law remains intact, and for any woman who dares to procure her own abortion, there is the threat of life imprisonment.

The only choice for many is to follow the London-Irish abortion trail. They travel in secret to English clinics to end their pregnancy and then return home, often confused about their own decision. But even though thousands are making this journey, the public in Northern Ireland are decidedly against changing their laws.

Ann Kossiter, author of ‘Ireland’s Hidden Diaspora’, says, "we’ve been reminded over recent years that Ireland has changed – but when it comes to the right of a woman to choose, it is a place still stuck in the dark ages, both north and south of the border." Meanwhile, as the government and anti-choice groups continue to support the laws against abortion, women who are predominantly silent, are voting with their feet. Over a thousand continue to cross the Irish Sea every year to end a pregnancy.