Q&A: Abortion will be decriminalised in the North at midnight, why?

Westminster Act also paves way for same-sex marriage and ‘victims pension’

What has happened and how did we get here?

As of midnight on October 21st, abortion will be decriminalised in Northern Ireland. The same legislation, which was passed in the UK parliament in July, also paves the way for the legalisation in the North of same-sex marriage and the introduction of a so-called "victims pension".

Under the terms of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Act, which was passed in Westminster in July, the British government was legally obliged to change the law in Northern Ireland in these three areas, unless the North’s power-sharing government was reinstated. It collapsed almost three years ago amid a row over a botched renewable heating scheme and, despite an 11th-hour attempt by unionist MLAs to recall the Assembly in the hope of blocking the changes, it remains suspended. This means the law in Northern Ireland must be changed.

What has changed?

Up until October 21st, Northern Ireland had strict anti-abortion laws. Abortion was illegal in almost any circumstance, including – controversially – fatal foetal abnormality, incest and rape.

According to the North’s Department of Health, more than 1,000 women from Northern Ireland travelled to England and Wales for an abortion in 2018. Abortion up to 24 weeks of pregnancy has been legal in the rest of the UK since 1967.


From October 22nd, women who seek to access abortion services in Northern Ireland will no longer be prosecuted, and investigations or prosecutions which are currently underway will be halted.

A public consultation on a proposed legal framework will begin “on or shortly after” October 22nd, according to information published by the Northern Ireland Office (NIO). This will inform the legislation, which is to be in place by March 31st, 2020.

What will happen in the mean time?

In the interim, women will continue to be able to access abortion services in England free of charge via a central booking service. Health professionals in Northern Ireland will now be able to supply information about services in England. Those with a conscientious objection to abortion should direct women to where the information is available, the NIO said.

Some anti-abortion campaigners, including Nuala O’Loan, have raised concerns that this interim period will permit “totally unregulated access to abortion” by creating, in effect, a gap in the law, whereby abortion is no longer illegal but there is no legal framework to regulate its operation.

The NIO has said that other relevant laws relating to the termination of pregnancy will remain in place, in particular the Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) Act 1945, which states that abortions “where the foetus is capable of being born alive” will continue to be unlawful.

What about the other provisions?

Under the terms of the Act, regulations must now be introduced to make marriage between same-sex couples legal in Northern Ireland from January 13th, 2020. Civil partnerships for partners of different sexes will also be legalised.

From January 13th, same-sex couples will be able to give notice of their intent to form a marriage or civil partnership. The NIO has said more information will be provided as work to prepare the regulations continues.

The new legislation also will provide pensions for an estimated 500 people who were severely physically injured during the Troubles. Under the law they would be entitled to special pensions ranging from £2,000-£9,700 (€2,325-€11,276) annually, depending on the extent of each person’s injuries.

Some hundreds more would be due similar payments for severe psychological injuries as a result of the Troubles. Legislation must be in place by the end of January and the scheme up and running by the end of next May.

What has been the reaction in Northern Ireland?

Abortion remains one of the most contentious issues in the North. Both pro- choice and anti-abortion campaigners gathered at Stormont on Monday; those in favour of the legalisation had come to celebrate, while those against were there to show their determination to continue their campaign.

The gulf between them illustrates the divide on the abortion issue within Northern Ireland: pro-choice campaigner Sarah Ewart, who began a six-year battle to change the law after she travelled to England in 2013 to terminate a pregnancy due to fatal foetal abnormality, said it was a "massive relief" and the change in the law would help others in her situation.

Those opposed to the legalisation of abortion in the North described it as a "sad day"; speaking in the Stormont chamber, DUP leader Arlene Foster said this was not the end, and the party would "do everything we can in our conscience to protect the life of the unborn".

There has also been opposition to the circumstances of the change in the law, with some MLAs describing its introduction by Westminster – rather than through the devolved government at Stormont – as anti-democratic.

Others, including Amnesty International, have said it is a human rights issue and women in Northern Ireland should be treated in the same way as women in the rest of the UK.

Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times