After decades of campaigning, parliamentary debates, court cases, national and international inquiries abortion was decriminalised in Northern Ireland in October 2019 by the UK government. In doing so it became one of the few countries in the world to decriminalise abortion and the first part of the UK to achieve this.
Regulations governing abortion services were published on 20 March 2020 becoming effective just 11 days later. The regulations cautiously adhered to the content of the recommendations set out by the CEDAW Committee following its inquiry into access to abortion in Northern Ireland. These recommendations were set out in section 9 of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019.
Whilst on paper the regulations might be regarded as in line with other EU countries, in practice this has proved far from true. The Northern Ireland Department of Health has, to date, refused to commission abortion services, awaiting it says funding from the UK government. In the meantime interim services are being offered by staff whose routine responsibilities have been put on hold during the COVID-19 pandemic.
These interim services have fulfilled only some of the regulations – ‘unrestricted abortion services until the 12th week of pregnancy’ in practice has only been early medical abortion (EMA) up until 9 weeks and 6 days. Many cases beyond this gestation are required to travel to England for services, which is particularly problematic amid the COVID-19 travel restrictions. In the interim, women continue to order abortion medication from international NGOs like WoW online. It is notable too that whilst the rest of the UK introduced EMA via telemedicine reducing the need to travel to clinics during the pandemic, in Northern Ireland the Minister for Health has refused to take similar action, abstaining on his own policy paper at Executive level.
On 2nd June 2020 we witnessed a return of the abortion debate in the Northern Ireland Assembly. In the debate, anti-abortion politicians passed a motion led by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) that used discomfort with abortion upon a Down Syndrome diagnosis to imply that all of the abortion legislation was unacceptable. A failed amendment from Sinn Féin focused specifically on its opposition to non-fatal foetal abnormality as an appropriate criterion for an abortion.
To observers the DUP’s motion was not a surprise – they are an anti-abortion party. Sinn Féin on the other hand have positioned themselves as pro-choice. In bringing this amendment they claimed however that this would align Northern Ireland provision with that in the Republic of Ireland, and thus achieve their aim of having an all-island policy on abortion. This position is deeply flawed as whilst there are aspects of the Irish legislation that are commendable – this particular aspect is causing harm to families, who if deciding to have an abortion in cases of non-fatal foetal abnormality, are abandoned by the state and left to travel abroad for abortions. It also contravenes their party policy that details the importance of being informed by best available medical evidence. It is remarkable that Sinn Féin have failed to grasp that human rights obligations cannot be cherry picked.
In a broader policy context the centring of the debate this week on disability issues must be considered in a context of neither DUP nor Sinn Féin having a strong profile on disability policy making. The impact of welfare reform is a perfect example of this. The stigma and discrimination experienced by disabled people, children and their carers needs significant intervention across a wide range of policy areas – such as education, housing, employment, and health. As the leading parties neither the DUP nor Sinn Féin have introduced effective policies to address disability stigma and discrimination. Thus attempts to centre opposition to abortion access on disability criteria which comes from a position of wanting to challenge discrimination against disabled people, smacks of hypocrisy.
Finally, whilst the theatrics in the Northern Ireland Assembly may have raised concerns that future attempts to limit the regulations will occur, the UK government have sent a clear signal that such attempts will fail. The Secretary of State asserted clearly in Parliament, two days after the Assembly debate, that legislative change is possible via the Assembly but that any changes must also comply with the CEDAW Committee recommendations.