"Where has the fight gone? Women in Northern Ireland are UK citizens and have been denied their rights. Labour needs to fight to get abortion rights in Northern Ireland back on the table."
The law that covers abortion in Northern Ireland is the 1861 Offences Against the Persons Act. Under that law, women who have an abortion can face life imprisonment. This includes cases where there is a fatal foetal abnormality, or the pregnancy was a result of rape or incest. Northern Ireland did not implement the Abortion Act 1967, and the UK government did not want to force the issue under Direct Rule in the 70s.
In 2009, the UN called upon the State to amend the abortion law in Northern Ireland to bring it in line with the 1967 Abortion Act. Further to this, the ECHR and the High Court has ruled that the law is “incompatible” with human rights provisions. However, any change must come from the legislature, and in February 2016, the Northern Ireland executive voted to keep the law exactly as it is.
Many argue that the law has not changed because the people of Northern Ireland don’t want it to. This is not the case, however. At least 60% of the public in Northern Ireland support liberalization of the law on abortion. This goes up to 70% in cases of rape or incest.
This is, unfortunately, one of the few issues on which the (majority male) politicians in Northern Ireland agree. Although the public appear to have moved forward, the legislators have not.
The Troubles cannot be used as an excuse for lack of progress anymore. This is about moralizing attitudes to sex. 82.3% of people in NI describe themselves as Christian, and the main parties, backed by churches, are settled to fight any form of change. Coupled with a government that has outdated and often sexist attitudes towards women, it seems unlikely the change can come from within. Jim Allister (TUV), when questioned about amending the law for cases of rape, replied by suggesting that women would simply pretend they had been assaulted.
The Labour party needs to recognise and highlight the class issues that underlie the debate. Over 1,000 women a year come to England from Northern Ireland and pay up to £2,000 for a private abortion. In effect, abortion is legal for those who have money. Choice exists for those who have the resources to pay for it.
In practical terms, the Labour Party can support charities offering advice to women in Northern Ireland such as Marie Stopes, or join in petitions to the Government. It is also vital that Labour acknowledges that our sister party, the SDLP – which explicitly opposes changes in the law - is not an alternative for Labour supporters in Northern Ireland. If we are to take our co-operation with SDLP seriously, then we should be meeting with their politicians to pressure them to reconsider this issue. SDLP Youth is already developing a LGBT section.
Finally, in 2008, a group of Labour MPs pushed for an amendment to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill which would extend the rights to Northern Ireland. After the amendment failed, many said that they would keep the issue in the public spotlight. But where has the fight gone? Women in Northern Ireland are UK citizens and have been denied their rights. Labour needs to fight to get abortion rights in Northern Ireland back on the table.