Will abortion continue to divide Northern Ireland politics?

Secretary of State, Chris Heaton-Harris, has followed through on his commitment to commission abortion services in Northern Ireland and has written to the Department of Health to begin the process. Campaigners suggest this is one of a series of outside interventions which highlight Stormont’s inability to effectively deal with abortion policy locally.

In his statement on 2 December 2022, Heaton-Harris said, “the UK Government is steadfast in its commitment to ensuring the women of Northern Ireland have access to safe, high-quality and local abortion services”.

Speaking of the recent announcement, Alliance for Choice campaigner Naomi Connor, said, “it was necessary for the Secretary of State to intervene because of the reality in Northern Ireland, where we have seen so many local political challenges”.

Until 2019 abortion was permitted only if the woman’s life was at risk or there was a serious risk of permanent and serious damage to her mental health. While the 1967 Abortion Act made terminations up to 24 weeks legal in Great Britain, it was never extended to Northern Ireland. Women seeking a termination were forced to travel to England.

The first major intervention from Westminster came in 2019, while Stormont, was collapsed in the form of the decriminalisation bill. The bill brought forward by Labour MP, Stella Creasey, was informed by an earlier report by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, which stated that by failing to introduce legislation, the UK was breaching the rights of women in Northern Ireland.

Speaking of the 2019 milestone Naomi said: “we celebrated that because it was huge. It was decades of campaigning. But we knew it wasn’t the end of the story. We knew it would be resisted”.

In 2020 after the passing of abortion legislation in Northern Ireland the then Health Secretary Robin Swann refused to commission services quoting legal advice which suggested that approval of the five-party coalition Executive was needed. This stalemate resulted in services not being fully commissioned for the next two years.

Reflecting on this Naomi said “Robin Swann’s refusal to commission, came about at the onset of a global pandemic, as we went into lockdown. It was absolutely despicable that the Department of Health were telling women and pregnant people at that time, that they must travel to England to access services”.

Amnesty International estimate that between 2020 and 2021 161 women and girls had to travel to England to access abortion services.

Speaking about this decision international expert on abortion policy, Dr Fiona Bloomer, said Robin Swann “absolutely could have changed the regulations on telemedicine. That was absolutely within his power”.

Telemedicine abortion combines medication abortion and telemedicine which allows health providers to supervise the use of abortion pills via teleconferencing or telephone consultations.

 Dr Bloomer added: “there are different legal opinions on whether Executive approval was needed. What I would suggest is, Robin Swann could have actually gone ahead and provided it, and then dealt with the consequences afterwards.”

Asked whether abortion legislation could have been secured without direct intervention from Westminster, Dr Bloomer, said “I don’t know whether we would be here or not without it. I think certainly we wouldn’t be as far advanced”.

She added “the Northern Ireland Assembly has been on a process of learning about the lived reality of abortion, how abortion policy is implemented, who needs abortions, and why they need abortions. And a number of our MLAs have gone from positions of either ambivalence on this issue, or a distinct hostility to realising that we needed legal change. The most significant group that didn’t move at all was the DUP.”

The Democratic Unionist Party, which is the largest unionist party in Northern Ireland, continue to hold a pro-life stance and has resisted the implementation of abortion legislation and services in Northern Ireland. In a statement on the recent decision by the Secretary of State, DUP MP Carla Lockhart said: “pressing ahead with this divisive policy is a further attack on the principles of devolution” adding “abortion is a devolved matter and future decisions should be taken by local ministers”.

Reflecting on the impact that abortion has had on the local political landscape, Naomi said: “we have the DUP, who are pro-Union Party, rejecting Westminster. And we have Sinn Fein, who have a policy of abstention in Westminster, saying the British Secretary of State for Westminster should implement this.”

This surprising turn of events reflects the divisive nature of abortion as a policy issue in Northern Ireland, which sees Unionists rejecting Westminster on abortion, while at the same time calling on Westminster to intervene on issues relating to the protocol.

While the direction from the Secretary of State means that the full commissioning abortion services is underway, future challenges are expected. Naomi warned: “I think this is our strongest point. But what I will say is, we can’t take it for granted. Because there will always be an anti-choice decision maker who will employ the services of a legal expert to look at ways to un-knit what has been put together”.

Dr Bloomer added “I have absolutely no doubt at all that the DUP will be working with anti-abortion lobbyists, who will be using the playbook that’s been used in places like United States to shut down access. I have no doubt about that at all.”

However, she added “we’re now in a different context, this legislation is from Westminster, and it is based on a ruling from the United Nations. Against the weight of all that the Northern Ireland Assembly looks like a small player in the field. So, I’ve no doubt there will be attempts, but they’ll not be successful because the legislative position is so robust.”

When asked if the DUP would seek to roll back the provision of abortion services, a spokesperson said “the DUP is a Pro-Life party and our members of the Northern Ireland Assembly and Parliament will continue to support Pro-Life policies and reject abortion.”

“The DUP is committed to promoting a culture of choosing life in Northern Ireland and this value must flow through into the support and services provided. We will champion greater support services for women in crisis or unexpected pregnancy and continue to take a Pro-Life stand in the Northern Ireland Assembly and at Westminster”.

As abortion continues to be a deeply divisive topic in Northern Ireland with future campaigning against abortion expected, Naomi reflected: “every single little thing has been battled for. This demonstrates that reproductive rights are not guaranteed, we have to be vigilant”.