Decriminalisation of abortion in North leads to confusion

Legislation due by end of March 2020 but the situation in the meantime is uncertain

If devolution is not restored in Northern Ireland by Monday, October 21st, same-sex marriage will be legalised and abortion laws liberalised. Video: Kathleen Harris


Abortion was decriminalised from midnight on Monday in Northern Ireland despite a last-ditch attempt by unionist Assembly members to override Westminster legislation.

Women who seek access to abortion in Northern Ireland will not be prosecuted, investigations of illegal abortions will no longer be pursued, and prosecutions currently under way will be halted.

Under the new legislation, introduced from Westminster in July, same-sex marriage is also being legalised, and people who were severely physically or psychologically injured in the Troubles are to receive annual pensions of £2,000-£10,000 (€2,326-€11,630).

DUP leader Arlene Foster said her party would “take every possible legal option open to us”, up to and including repeal, to try and prevent the legalisation of abortion. “These are abnormal days and we are in a very abnormal situation,” she said.

Ms Foster said under the change, abortion could be permitted up to 28 weeks, although there was an absence of absolute clarity on the issue last night. The Northern Ireland Office said there would be a consultation period and that new legislation would have to be in place by the end of March next year. There is some confusion, however, over what the law permits in the meantime.

Unregulated system

Former police ombudsman and lawyer Nuala O’Loan said the interim period could permit “totally unregulated access to abortion” including up to 28 weeks. One GP told The Irish Times “in theory there is a gap” and up to March the system would be unregulated.

The Northern Assembly met for the first time in more than 1,000 days on Monday to consider a DUP Private Members’ Bill that would have put any change in the law in the hands of the Assembly rather than Westminster.

Acting speaker Robin Newton ruled that the motion could not proceed without a new speaker first being elected. This would have required a cross-community vote but because of a Sinn Féin boycott and an SDLP walk-out this could not be achieved and the Assembly had to be adjourned.

Gráinne Teggart of Amnesty International said “history” was made at midnight. “This is a hugely significant moment and the beginning of a new era for Northern Ireland,” she said.

Life NI spokeswoman Aisling Dundee said the new legislation was “paving the way for tens of thousands of unborn lives to be lost and the exploitation of women”.