Northern Ireland has long had a ban on abortion in almost all circumstances – even rape and incest – and women seeking a termination can face life in prison.
But MPs in Westminster voted to extend the right to abortion to Northern Ireland back in July, and it was agreed that abortion would be made legal if a devolved executive at Stormont was not restored by 21 October. That deadline has now passed and the procedure has been on the books since midnight.
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While the law around abortion has already changed, many questions and uncertainties remain about what this law will look like for women living in Northern Ireland.
A 12-week consultation will launch before the end of the year to determine how services will be implemented from 31 March – the date at which the UK government is legally required to have put in place guidelines for free, safe, legal and local abortion services.
In the interim period, those who need to travel for an abortion will have all expenses, such as treatment, transport and a place to stay, paid for by the UK government.
Nevertheless, a moratorium on criminal prosecutions surrounding abortions has come into force immediately, which ultimately means that no criminal proceedings can be brought against those seeking or carrying out an abortion.
The mother who faced a prison sentence for buying abortion pills online for her teenage daughter will have the prosecution against her dropped. Both were granted anonymity in the case.
Rachael Clarke, of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), the UK’s largest abortion provider, said the UK government has made it clear that there will not be abortion services provided by the NHS in Northern Ireland until after March next year.
She said: “The law that was passed by Westminster makes it clear that it has to abide by the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) which is an international treaty adopted by the UN. It states you have to provide abortions services for women in cases of rape, incest and fetal abnormality and also says women have to be able to have an abortion in the country. Our expectation is from next spring abortion will be available to women in all cases.”
Ms Clarke said the ability to access an abortion in the interim period was dependent on “what doctors feel comfortable providing” – noting that GPs in Northern Ireland have not been trained to provide abortion and there is “no structure in place” to provide terminations.
She said the government was obliged to pass secondary legislation by March next year which outlines who will provide abortion care and how they will do so.
“But the underlying law around criminality has already changed,” Ms Clarke added. “Having an abortion before the 22 week mark is no longer a crime. We should not underestimate what a huge step forward this is. It is a fundamental change in the law that has been blocked time and time again.
“The law in Northern Ireland had the harshest punishment in the world for abortion – life in jail. The process of being forced to travel abroad for an abortion is traumatising. It is an unacceptable way of outsourcing your nation’s healthcare needs. We hear time and time again from women who don’t tell anyone they are travelling to have an abortion because there is such a stigma around this kind of healthcare.”