Northern Ireland abortion laws explained

Three Families on BBC: What are the current abortion laws in Northern Ireland?

It's been a long road for the women of Northern Ireland

Three Families on BBC One shed light on a complex and emotive subject – abortion laws in Northern Ireland.

For so long bound up in politics, religion and old laws, things changed in 2019 and 2020.

Here’s the lowdown on what the laws were, when they changed and how the country got to where it is today.

Three Families on BBC One
Three Families shed light on complex issues (Credit: BBC)

What were the Northern Ireland abortion laws?

Until 2019, there were two main laws when it came to the termination of pregnancy in Northern Ireland.

The Offences Against the Persons Act 1861 prohibited the attempts to cause miscarriage.

Elsewhere, the Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1945 provided an exception for acting “in good faith for the purpose only of preserving the life of the mother”.

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According to the former law, people who were caught administering drugs or using “instruments to procure an abortion” faced a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.

The lesser offence of buying drugs to cause an abortion was “liable… to be kept in penal servitude”.

Sarah Ewart Northern Ireland abortion laws
Sarah Ewart campaigned for a change in the law over abortion in Northern Ireland (Credit: BBC)

The time of change

Throughout the late 20th century and the early 21st, activists campaigned for a relaxation in the laws.

In 2013, Sarah Ewart spoke publicly about having to travel to England to get an abortion despite knowing her baby would not survive birth.

These instances and increasingly louder voices across the political spectrum in Northern Ireland led to a consultation in 2014.

This consultation asked “whether abortion should be legalised when the foetus has a fatal abnormality (will not survive birth) and when the pregnancy is the result of sexual crime”.

A year later the Belfast Supreme Court judged that the country’s abortion laws were “incompatible” with human rights laws.

Back in London in 2017, MP Stella Creasy proposed an amendment to the Queen’s Speech about Northern Ireland.

And then, in 2018, the Irish Republic voted to repeal its abortion laws in a national referendum.

It’s these small moments of change that led to something much, much bigger.

Northern Ireland abortion laws
The law changed in 2020 (Credit: Sky News)

The current laws on abortion in Northern Ireland

In October 2019 abortion was decriminalised in Northern Ireland.

Additionally, a new framework came into effect in March 2020.

The new laws state that a termination can take place up to 12 weeks unconditionally.

Amnesty UK says that termination is also allowed up to 24 weeks only “when continuing the pregnancy would risk mental or physical injury to the woman or girl that is greater than the risk of terminating the pregnancy”.

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Furthermore, there is no time limit for termination only if  “there is substantial impairment to the fetus, including when death is likely before, during or shortly after birth.”

And, unlike Theresa in Three Families, those purchasing abortion pills online will now not be prosecuted.

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