Decriminailisation of Abortion Laws In Northern Ireland – An End To A Grotesque Religious Culture

Thousands of women from North Ireland have abortions every year, outside the law in their bedrooms or England. They will now be able to access normal health care,” said Goretti Horgan, a spokeswoman for the abortion-rights group Alliance for Choice”.[1]

Introduction

The sudden and tragic death of an Indian woman, Savita Halappanavar, has influenced one of the apocalyptic changes in Northern Ireland’s stringent laws against abortion. She died when denied an abortion after a miscarriage in 2012. In Northern Ireland, abortion is not permissible even in any medical emergency and the lives of women are put at stake. Her family’s plea was ignored by the doctors by stating the reason for the illegality of termination, and this sparked a debate that how far this repression will exist and who will put an end to an old age practice that blatantly is engrossing women rights.

It raised questions on the hypocritical nature of the law where abortion is deemed as a criminal activity whose result is quite traumatic for the women, with their only fault that they wanted the old age law to demolish. According to Northern Ireland’s law, it has restricted to undertake abortion even in the case of incest and rape which is doubtlessly an unjust behaviour towards women as they are not allowed to take the decisions of their own body, not in grave situations, which ultimately leads to disastrous consequences.[2]

Abortion – A Subject Of Women’s Rights

Northern Ireland’s abortion law became an issue of the well-publicized allegation of infringing human rights exhibiting the pinnacle of many years’ work of pro-reform campaigners and human rights activists. The committee on the elimination of discrimination against women (CEDAW) stated that women and girls in Northern Ireland faced systematic violation of rights as they are forced to travel outside to procure the legal abortion process or pressurized to conceive the child.

Women further face the mental illness, when they are compelled to carry a fetus with fatal abnormalities (where the probability of survival of a fetus is quite low) and when the pregnancy is due to rape or incest.[3] The whole procedure is quite painful for the women, as it works as a catalyst in aggravating their miserable state.

The worst sufferers are the poor women who could not arrange the money for their travelling and if any complication arises they are left with no option and taking any other alternatives like consuming abortion pills made them eligible for legal proceedings. So, it would not be wrong to say that it negatively affects one gender emotionally, physically, and mentally. The new law is no less than a historic victory for the whole population of Northern Ireland. It gave the women the freedom to have autonomy over their bodily choices and a life without any surveillance poking in their personal choice.

Religious Belief

In Northern Ireland mostly Catholic and Protestant are segregated, with even some examples of neighbourhood divided by the barbed wire fences, displaying the historical bitter relation shared by them. After the 1997 agreement, peace prevails but not for a long time despite all these Northern Irish politicians agree on one thing– banning abortion.[4] Northern Ireland’s status is considered as the most religious part of the UK that can be a primitive factor that emerged as a major obstacle in the deconstruction of abortion law. According to the 2011 census, some 82.3% identified themselves as Christians which was much higher than the other places of the United Kingdom.

Although the peace process was undertaken, it remained a divided society especially on sectarian lines that automatically gave more authority to the Church to execute all kinds of activities, all the major movements against the decriminalization of abortion law and gave evidence about the unaccountable power held by the church. The numbers are dropping of church attendance but still, it is quite high.[5] It can be stated that Northern Ireland comprised of conservative people and for them absorbing radical changes is still a difficult task and hence some amount of awareness is required to educate people about equality, women rights and popular opinion on that the law must change following with the contemporary scenario otherwise it can be harmful to the whole society if they become rigid in its essence.

A Silent Revolution

Northern Ireland almost took two decades for overthrowing the misogynist law and to finally get away from the clutches of demeaning law. It will not be wrong to say that this was a liberating movement for the Irish women who have undergone so much pain but the new reform would ensure a just society as the darkness which was once dooming the women rights are no more in existence.

The draconian amendment to the constitution was made in the year 1980 but the country has changed a lot, it has become more inclusive, liberal, and free but the law remained static. And, it has finally decided to shown sympathy and decided to give the right to self- determination. The victory becomes larger because the whole country came united in rooting out the evil law, men voted against the prevailing law for their dear ones to have control over their bodies and accessibility of right to seek medical help.

After the scandalous case of Savita, women felt they must not subjugate to the unfair laws, their rights must be granted. In the last few years, the campaign grew to a great extent public debates were organized and the issues of sexuality became their main subject matter. Irish women wanted the ban on abortion law. And, they were supported by a Prime Minister who risked her political future in the hope of new tolerant Northern Ireland that will have comprehensive nature and will help in dissolving the gender differentiation.[6]

How The Decriminilisation Process Culminated?

In June 2017, Belfast’s court stated that it is up to the Northern Irish Assembly to decide on the country’s stringent abortion laws. On the same day, the British parliament declared funding for pregnant Northern Ireland women to access abortion in England, pressured by Labour party and ally Stefan Creasy. In May 2018 the Republic of Ireland voted to reverse its primitive restriction on abortion laws.

Before this month Sarah Ewart, a woman who was forced to travel to England for an abortion after a dangerous fetal diagnosis, triumphed in her legal challenge against Northern women travelled to other countries for undertaking the Ireland laws as an abridgement of the human rights. On similar lines, an overwhelming number of abortion process in the last three years took place in other countries through all possible modes of transportation.

The 158- year-old ban on abortion was lifted and Northern Ireland took the steps towards a progressive future. In the process, some political leaders and parties tried a last and unsuccessful attempt by naming a speaker to defeat the law reform – a disgusting display of their hatred towards human rights. This historic change in the law is not an outcome of the sudden revolution, it is a cumulative result of struggles, sacrifices, reckless debates, and the active participation of vigilant citizens.

Over the years, women have faced prosecution for a vague law whose legality was harming their very existence, questioning their autonomy of body. Northern Ireland is now independent of the archaic threat which was once suffocating the lives of women, and now they won’t be dragged to court for the bodily choices.[7] The 1967 Britain Abortion Act, which allows abortion up to 24 weeks in the rest of the United Kingdom but was never extended to Ireland. The abortion law in Northern Ireland is ones of the most repressive one and its roots back to Victorian-era law. So, it can be easily understood that to weed out this practice must have been a difficult road to undertake.

Conclusion

The 22nd of October is a notable day in the history of abortion law reform in Northern Ireland, and after the amendment now abortion is decriminalized until the 24th week of pregnancy. It is still a debatable issue whether this kind of regulation need necessary specification or not. Meanwhile, it is found out that restriction in criminal laws does not reduce its occurrence, on the contrary, a report says that there is a higher chance of abortion where restrictions are tighter. Besides, legal barriers often lead to difficulties for women in accessing the services.

These are the points to consider while analyzing the arguments which assume that the absence of a particular legal restriction on abortion after 24 weeks’ gestation would lead to an increase in the number of taking up the procedure. Introducing new and progressive law is an important component to shift the traditional framework for regulating the process of abortion and aims to absolve women rights. Such an approach is important to change the thinking of people and dilute the stigmatization attached to it. This will further pave the way for more progressive steps by ensuring they are not obstructed while entering health premises.[8]


[1] Amanda Ferguson, Northern Ireland legalizes abortion and same-sex marriage, The Washington Post, available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/northern-ireland-is-legalizing-abortion-and-same-sex-marriage/2019/10/21/238ccdc4-f-1a9-11e9-bb7e-d2026ee0c199_story.html

[2] By decriminalizing abortion, Northern Ireland has finally upheld women’s rights, Hindustan Times, available at https://www.hindustantimes.com/editorials/by-decriminalising-abortion-n-ireland-has-finally-acknowledged-women-s-rights/story M5qRR5DYPZO6hjblzUGN.html, (Last visited on October 22, 2019).

[3] Northern Irish abortion law violates women’s rights says UN officials, The Guardian, available at https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/feb/23/northern-ireland-abortion-law-violates-womens-rights-says-un-committee, (Last visited on Feb 23, 2018).

[4] When religious ideology drives abortion policy, poor women suffer the consequences, THE CONVERSATION, https://theconversation.com/when-religious-ideology-drives-abortion-policy-poor-women-suffer-the-consequences-121906, (Last visited on August 30, 2019).

[5] “Jon Kelly, Why are Northern Ireland’s abortion laws different to the rest of the UK?, BBC News, https://www.bbc/news/amp/magazine-35980195”, (Last visited on 8th April 2019).

[6]  Barbara Wesel, Opinion: A triumph for women and Ireland, DW, https://www.dw.com/en/opinion-a-triumph-for-women-and-for-ireland-/a-43941067, (Last visited on May 29, 2019).

[7] Anna Cafolla, The end to Northern Ireland’s abortion ban is a triumph for grassroots activism, The Guardian, https://www.the guardian.com/commentisfree/2019/oct/22/northern-ireland-abortion-ban-triumph-grassroots-activism”, (Last visited on            October 22, 2019).

[8] Dr Sheelagh McGuinnes, Abortion Law Reform in Northern Ireland, University of Bristol Law School Blog, https://legalresearch.blogs.bris.ac.uk/2019/10/abortion-law-reform-in-northern-ireland, (Last visited on October 25, 20190.

Anjali Kumari from Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law, Punjab


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