Abortion in Northern Ireland: this is just the beginning

Decriminalisation is long overdue. But will much change in practice?

Ella Whelan

Ella Whelan


Northern Ireland’s government in Stormont has been inactive for over 1,000 days. Sinn Fein and the DUP have been unable to bury the hatchet over a botched environmental policy and age-old rows over cultural practices. With the power-sharing agreement unable to function, the Northern Irish civil service has been left running the country, unable to make any key decisions. As a result, the UK parliament passed a law that instructed the two parties to return to Stormont to kiss and make up or face the prospect of Westminster taking over.

After an embarrassing performance in Stormont on Monday, in which a handful of politicians made a hamfisted show of trying to come back together, at midnight Westminsters’ threats became real and the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 came into force. Most significantly, the law also repealed sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, clearing the way for the decriminalisation of abortion.

It is incredibly tempting to celebrate this news. Until this week, women who fell pregnant in Northern Ireland, who either experienced complications or changed their mind about wanting to become mothers, found themselves in a dire place. Abortion – even in extreme and tragic cases of rape or fatal fetal abnormality – was illegal and punishable by prison. Women who took perfectly safe abortion pills that are legal in England were terrified of having their doors knocked down by the police. In such a dystopian situation, any change is welcome.

What’s more, repealing sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act is what most British pro-choice campaigners dream of. British law merely caveats the Offences Against the Person Act with special requirements allowing women to access some abortion services in some circumstances. Legally speaking, repealing sections 58 and 59 could pave the way for Northern Irish women to access abortion services with the same ease as flu medication.

But access to abortion services is about more than the law. Westminster’s new guidelines state: ‘No criminal charges can be brought against those who have an abortion, or against healthcare professionals who provide and assist in an abortion.’ This sounds fantastic. But in practice, there are currently no plans to make services routinely available in Northern Ireland before spring 2020. The BBC reports that by 2020, abortions with medication (but not surgery) will be available at two – just two! – hospital sites in Northern Ireland. In the interim, women will be financially supported to travel to England for abortion services. Though the change in the law is a necessary step, when services will be so few and far between it is hard to see this as a substantial win for women’s bodily autonomy.

There is also the uncomfortable fact that this legal change has been won by default. It is true that pro-choice campaigners in Northern Ireland have worked tirelessly to change the law, buoyed by their sisters in the southern counties who were victorious in repealing the Irish Republic’s archaic abortion ban last year. But Northern Ireland’s law was not changed through a victorious campaign mandated by popular support, but through political chicanery and legal threats. It was imposed from Westminster on a supposedly devolved parliament.

Technical victories are no substitute for making a strong and substantial case for women’s liberty and autonomy. Winning the public’s support will be the only way to guarantee women’s freedom in the long term.

Ella Whelan is a spiked columnist and the author of What Women Want: Fun, Freedom and an End to Feminism.

Picture by: Getty.

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Thomas Smith

25th October 2019 at 7:44 pm

Perhaps the assumption Ella makes that the people who comment here have half a brain cell on this issue, and/or that they’ve read Ann Furedi’s book on the subject, is misplaced. On the other hand, maybe she just doesn’t give a shit what these reactionary idiots think. I certainly don’t.

Thomas Smith

25th October 2019 at 7:47 pm

I mean, bodily and moral autonomy to be granted to the being that is intelligent, adult, and has experienced life, vs. the creature nesting inside her that has none of the above yet. Duhhh. What a concept!

steve moxon

26th October 2019 at 10:16 am

Dumbest comment on this site for some time. Those who make a play of their supposed intelligence usually are not only thick themselves but willfully uninformed and lacking in the facility to look at different sides of a discussion, as apparently you are on this topic. Even an IQ of well under 100 still allows anyone to see that there is a genuine moral conflict in abortion, compounded by imposing a moral position on third parties — health workers, whose raison d’etre is protecting life, re which they have to swear an oath. With the technology available to all there is no excuse not to know fertility status, thereby to avoid any need for termination beyond whatever time limit is set; not excluding even the ‘heartbeat’ threshold. To accommodate conflicting moral positions a time limit has to be set, and costs of some or various kind need to be sustained by those who don’t take responsibility for a new life within their own body, so as to feed back to reinforce taking such responsibility generally.

Francis Lonergan

24th October 2019 at 8:41 pm

“Winning the public’s support will be the only way to guarantee women’s freedom in the long term.”

There will be no freedom for the would-be future women, who will be victims of Ella’s backward ideology in the growing killing fields.

Neil McCaughan

24th October 2019 at 8:12 pm

As usual Miss Whelan seems wholly unconcerned about the rights of infants, and their fathers. Just a lot of whing about the “rights” of selfish, immature women.

Neil McCaughan

24th October 2019 at 8:15 pm

Whining. I do wish we could edit typos.

Ron Nixon

24th October 2019 at 8:10 pm

Why do pro-death advocates such as Ella Whelan always objectify human life? To her, a fetus is not an individual human life in nascent form that should be nurtured and protected from harm, but a soulless, dead blob of tissue that she should be free to dispose of for any reason, at any time, any where.

Maybe the naked truth of her pro-choice calumny will catch up to her one day?

Tim Hare

28th October 2019 at 9:13 pm

A human life in ‘nascent form’ is a contradiction in terms. There is just human life. Can you think of any other ‘forms’ of human life? Either a life is fully human or it is not. The fact that you have to qualify the fetus with your description of ‘nascent’ shows that there is some doubt about it being fully human. If your argument is reasonable then you would not have manipulate the language.

Puddy Cat

24th October 2019 at 5:41 pm

If we had a private health service with no interaction with authority then the matter would be left to the conscience of the individual. Are we not just a little cheesed off with the moralising NGOs and state run practices? Sweets, fags, eating on buses, dietary obsessions leafing to all sorts of misdirection. Badly conceived and hastily contrived generalities about fat consumption, the use diesel motors? Politicians rushing to hastily patch blind spots. Perhaps the people and their ways of life carry more practical sense and certainly more joy of life than those empire building little government attached sinecures.

Andrew Leonard

25th October 2019 at 5:08 am

If the public wants universal free healthcare, they have to be prepared to accept moralising NGO’s, and all the other stuff you mention, as part of the deal.
There is no parallel universe in which everything health related is free at the point of use, without agenda or ideology being injected into the process.
Think of it like a negotiating situation; if one side wants the trifecta of quality, promptness and zero pricing, the other side gets to demand more than the taxes required to pay for it all.

Forlorn Dream

24th October 2019 at 12:49 pm

So the feminists are about to get what they want but are still moaning because it won’t be given the way they wanted it to be.

This yet again proves my belief that you can’t appease feminists, you can only ignore them.

Jim Lawrie

24th October 2019 at 9:56 am

Change the law by any means necessary. As always, the left abandon democracy and law when it forces through what they want.

steve moxon

24th October 2019 at 8:58 am

Ella Whelan here is out of touch with both relevant technology and the moral debate.
* There is no longer any excuse for any woman not to know her fertility status, given self-administered, simple, wee-on-a-strip pregnancy testing, together with near-infallible female contraception. If a woman is having periods, the she knows that if she misses one she needs to take the wee-on-a-strip test. Consequently, even the ‘heartbeat’ time limit for abortion can be introduced to more severely limit the window for abortion.
* No health worker ever should be obliged to intervene actually to destroy the life that is a foestus at the behest of anyone who just can’t be bothered to check their fertility status.
* The ‘right to life’ trumps ‘the right to choose’ any and every day, so ‘right to choose’ has to be circumscribed.
It’s actually quite simple. Women need to take responsibility for any zygote they host, and need to be made to take responsibility for it if they decline to do so. If they flout a ‘heartbeat’ or whatever time limit is decided, then they should be punished — being made to pay for any treatment, for a start — in ways that feed back to ensure women generally take responsibility and don’t behaving immorally and, furthermore, don’t impose their immorality on health workers and others.
This is the only way to reconcile the two opposing positions of ‘right to life’ and ‘right to choose’. Both can be accommodated, but ‘right to choose’ must be secondary to ‘right to life’.

Tim Hare

28th October 2019 at 9:08 pm

but ‘right to choose’ must be secondary to ‘right to life’.

There is no doubt that a woman has the right to make choices. There is no discussion needed about that – it is universally accepted by all people. What is not universally accepted is that a fetus has a right to life. You presume this to be true without showing how or why it is true and so you argument has no substance. It is based on a claim without any evidence.

Stephen J

24th October 2019 at 8:27 am

I am not against such choice, not religious or squeamish, life begins at birth.

But I guess the point is that it is a matter of democracy, and the governments that have thrown their lot in with the EU, do not believe in it.

Not only that, they want it to be seen to be ridden roughshod, it is according to the remoaner class, a dead concept that is to be derided and destroyed.

Dominic Straiton

24th October 2019 at 9:11 am

The assumption that life begins at birth flies in the face of biological evidence and the opinion of most biologists that life begins at fertilisation. When 5337 were asked 96% of those who responded agreed that life began at fertilisation while only 240 or 4% said life began at birth.

Stephen J

24th October 2019 at 9:23 am

I am a proud four percenter then.

Of course I understand the biology, but this is not about biology, it about politics.

Jerry Owen

24th October 2019 at 10:23 am

Steven J
I have no axe to grind in this debate , but clearly life begins before birth, a heart beat indicates life, a foetuses heart beats before it is born therefore life begins before birth. Your belief which you have every right to hold is biologically wrong.
When your heart doesn’t beat it indicates zero life.
You may want to do further research.

Tubbers McGee

24th October 2019 at 8:57 pm

It’s semantics – life, in the biological sense, begins at fertilisation while Life, the experience of living, begins at birth.

Only a fool would argue that plants are not alive and yet no one bemoans the loss of life caused by removing an unwanted one from the garden, much less the uprooting of a bulb. Insofar as we can tell, a plant has no conscience, no experience and no feelings. There is nothing that it is like to be a plant.

So the real question is when does the baby become conscious; when is it capable of experience; when can it perceive pain, or harm.

In Northern Ireland, abortion was illegal, period, even an early abortion in cases of rape or severe medical danger to the mother, and yet no one is arguing that an early embryo is conscious.

Jim Lawrie

24th October 2019 at 10:24 am

Your mention of not being religious or squeamish comes across as virtue signalling given that you state these are not factors. For you. Confirmed by your “proud for percenter” boast.

Stephen J

24th October 2019 at 5:28 pm

“I am a proud four percenter” was not a “boast” or comment that I would ever use, it was presented on a plate by someone who is trying to suggest that I am wrong. It isn’t wrong, it is a matter of opinion, some are what is called “pro-choice” some (usually on my side) call this “pro-life” and both get very heated about it.

My point about a human life beginning at birth is that until that time, baby is a full time parasite and in reality part of its host’s life. If the host has her own good reason to have it removed, that is her business.

As for virtue signalling, I thought that was what declarative people do, rather than one side in a discussion. I was merely pointing out that as a bloke, I don’t think I have much of a stake in this, I can only argue from a theoretical position, rather than a religious or medical one.

So I say again, surely it is up to the electorate of Northern Ireland what their position is, certainly the people there are very different, they seem to have leaders that believe in stuff and stand by it. The Westminster government have decided that the people of Northern Ireland should be good little Europeans.

Both the affected women and the electorate have lost out here because they have just had politics done TO them, rather than BY them… They have just been told what is what, and I can understand why they are so hacked off.

Dominic Straiton

24th October 2019 at 3:10 pm

Its not about politics. Its about morality.

Stephen J

24th October 2019 at 5:05 pm

Yes and who determines what is moral? Politicians, or more accurately politicians in frocks… aka priests (etc.).

My point is not about the act of abortion it is about the act of talking about it.

Ron Nixon

24th October 2019 at 8:16 pm

Well said, mate.

Dominic Straiton

24th October 2019 at 5:23 pm

We do talk about it. The simple fact that a fetus is an abortion and a baby is a miscarriage shows words convey meaning. Its a battle line with millions dead that shows the ridiculous “right to life” human rights act up for what it is.

Jerry Owen

24th October 2019 at 8:22 am

I struggle with the abortion issue. Sometimes I am for it in terms of rape or severe handicap. But I also see it as a lifestyle choice which I am against. Personal responsibility has been bypassed and of course where are the rights of the father ?
Is it right that the tax payer has to face the burden of a woman choosing abortion because if a lifestyle choice .. this is on a par with the taxpayer paying for boob jobs on the NHS.
Claire you make some good points .. you seem to know your stuff !

Claire D

24th October 2019 at 10:51 am

Thanks Jerry, I just think there has to be a better way forward than the one Ella expects, which does not align with Humanism at all in my view.

Bear Mac Mathun

24th October 2019 at 6:26 am

This is a tragedy – one would hope we would stop seeing the permitting the killing of vulnerable humans as progress. It is the ultimate form of tyranny.

Andrew Leonard

24th October 2019 at 1:49 am

Whilst I support abortion rights, there is something about the justification for these rights that doesn’t seem to be totally honest.
Abortion rights start from the premise that women own their own bodies, and do so regardless of the stage of a pregnancy.
This is another way of saying; the state does not own women’s bodies, including during pregnancy.
That’s all fine by me, but I find it a bit misleading.
Women do not have abortions, primarily due to the imposition of the fetus on their bodies. Rather they have abortions because they do not want the responsibility of a new child.
Given this, “We own our own bodies”, sounds like a rationalisation.
If the primary reason for abortion is to avoid the responsibility of having a baby, why not make the autonomy of parents, the centrepoint of abortion rights?
That would mean giving fathers abortion rights, also. How that would work, I will leave to your imagination.
Furthermore, why then limit the parent’s right to the pregnancy stage? In the case of children born severely handicapped, what’s the objection to infanticide?

Claire D

24th October 2019 at 6:23 am

That’s well argued Andrew.
My view is that the increase in abortions in the UK to nearly 200,000 last year is not anything to celebrate, especially not if you are a young woman. It shows that though women now have the autonomy they demanded, as well as access to numerous types of birth control and pregnancy testing kits, thousands are failing to take responsibility for that autonomy, and their sexuality in particular.
Rather than extending ‘ abortion rights ‘ we need to be educating girls better about the realities of abortion and encouraging them to be more responsible, instead of saying in effect; ” It does’nt matter, there’s this really easy answer to the inconvenient consequence of having sex whenever you feel like it. Just have an abortion. Turn your eyes away from the truth, those pictures of fetuses are just mean, put up by strange people who think that the potential lives of unborn children matter.”
I also support abortion rights but think that the limit should be 12 weeks as it is in Germany, France and Spain, and that should run alongside a national campaign via the NHS, schools, universities and popular media, to educate and encourage more responsible behaviour.
As long as the old feminist slogan, ” a woman’s right to choose ” continues to drive the issue, we will not be able to grapple with the reality and that, I would argue, is the way forward, not more and more abortions.

Perverted Lesbian

24th October 2019 at 7:40 am

I agree, Claire
I am pro-choice, but there is just something about abortion that turns my stomach. Abortion should be an absolute last resort and yet it is talked about so casually by some, who was that celebrity bragged about having or wanting an abortion? what a role model :/
For me, unless there are exceptional circumstances then abortion should be available up to 8wks. Now some will argue that women do not notice until they start throwing up that something is wrong (6wks) well that is where education comes in, also if we are saying ‘womens body womens choice etc’ well women (most) know how babies are made, take some responsibility, there is absolutely no need to have an abortion of a healthy fetus in the West, if you had sex without any form of contraception…..take the morning-after pill, it works up to 72hrs apparently, this pill should be free and dispensed by nurses rather than risk missing the time frame waiting for an appointment with a GP which is like gold dust these days.
For me there is no argument that justifies abortion in the West today, not if the Mother is of sound mind, all contraception is free, morning-after pill ( I think is £48) this should be made free. Eliminating the need for abortions through education, should be the goal.

Andrew Leonard

24th October 2019 at 7:41 am

It’s interesting Claire, when there’s this really easy answer to the inconvenient consequence of having sex whenever you feel like it – as you put it – it does seem to trigger the ethical circuits of the brain. I think this sort of reaction is always going to be the case when it appears someone is “getting away with something” – that is, when the benefits of an action outweigh the costs.

Perhaps we just need to get over these ancient responses. On the other hand, the somewhat misleading standard argument for abortion rights, and the reactions to pictures of fetuses, would seem to hint at at least slightly guilty consciences.

Jerry Owen

24th October 2019 at 12:00 pm

Andrew Leonard
‘Ancient responses’ .. wow , from a man that refuses to accept modern science to stick with the ‘four percenters’. Hilarious !

Andrew Leonard

24th October 2019 at 1:26 pm

I meant ancient in the evolutionary sense

Winston Stanley

24th October 2019 at 1:42 am

It is up to them. Best thing, have a referendum. Most of them is likely on the pill and use condoms anyway, which is why the NI fertility rate has fallen from 3.65 kids per woman in 1964 to 1.87 in 2017. Still a way to go to match UK-born mothers at 1.63 or Scotland at 1.42.

Claire D

24th October 2019 at 6:49 am

It’s interesting you should say that Winston because in the UK the pill is only used by around 26% of women 16 – 50 yrs, not always for contraceptive reasons either. That rises to around 40 – 50% amongst women 16 – 26. There are popular misconceptions (if you’ll forgive the pun) about the prevalence of pill use, and even when in use it’s effectiveness only runs at about 80 – 85% due to human error or illness (digestive problems etc).

Winston Stanley

24th October 2019 at 2:14 pm

Yes I was talking about fertile women who have s ex with men, obviously they are using contraception or they are having babies.

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