At midnight this past Monday, an amendment to legalize same-sex marriage and abortion in Northern Ireland went into effect. At that time, all existing investigations and prosecutions against women who have had or sought abortions were dropped. According to the New York Times, full abortion services are scheduled to be introduced in Northern Ireland by March 31st. Until that time, the United Kingdom will cover the cost of anyone who travels for the procedure and medical support for those who have taken pills to terminate pregnancies (The Washington Post). The measure brought about mixed responses in traditionally conservative Northern Ireland.
Although same-sex marriage was also legalized in this amendment, the focus has been on abortion. Although there has been avid support for the measure, many in Northern Ireland still vehemently oppose the legalization of abortion. “The people of Northern Ireland are being forced to adhere to a law we weren’t even allowed to vote for. It’s undemocratic and vile,” said Martin Power, an activist from Belfast who opposes abortion (New York Times). Precious Life, Northern Ireland’s largest anti-abortion group, has promised to increase their efforts to fight abortion following the new law. According to The Washington Post, Bernadette Smyth, the organization’s director, said they will pursue campaigns and possible legal challenges to the new laws.
The issue is heightened by the fact that the law was passed by British lawmakers, rather than the regional government in Northern Ireland. The regional government, however, has not met in nearly three years. The government dissolved in 2017 due to sectarian divides, namely those between pro-British unionists and Irish nationalists (The Washington Post). According to the New York Times, lawmakers at Westminster saw the political stalemate in Northern Ireland as an opportunity. They voted overwhelmingly to legalize same-sex marriage and abortion in July. Parliament gave the regional government in Northern Ireland a chance to overturn the amendment if they could meet by the end of October to do so. In a last-minute scramble, some conservative lawmakers did attempt to meet in the Northern Ireland’s Assembly at Stormont. They were ultimately unsuccessful in their efforts.
Many in Northern Ireland have long viewed the country’s stance on same-sex marriage and, specifically, abortion as behind the curve. The rest of the United Kingdom has allowed legal abortions, up to the 24th week of pregnancy, since 1967 (The Washington Post). In May 2018, a referendum in the Republic of Ireland significantly eased restrictions on abortions. Prior to the passage of this amendment, Northern Ireland had one of the world’s most restrictive abortion laws. Victims of rape and incest had to carry to full term or travel outside of Northern Ireland for the procedure. The only exception was if the mother’s life was at risk (New York Times). Those that had abortions and the physician that performed the procedure faced a possible life sentence for their actions.
While the passage of this law is absolutely a step in the right direction, many are concerned that the stigma surrounding the issue will not go away. In a traditionally conservative country like Northern Ireland, deep divisions of these issues do not go away. Many are concerned that those who seek or perform abortion procedures will be shamed by their community, or worse. When abortion was decriminalized in the Republic of Ireland, those who were part of the anti-abortion movement used aggressive tactics to prevent women from having abortions. These included opening fake abortion clinics and establishing fake helplines (New York Times). Many in Northern Ireland are afraid they may see these tactics, or similar ones, moving forward.
The pro-life versus pro-choice debate has been going on for decades. For some, it is rooted in religious beliefs. For many, it is becoming an issue of human rights. Those who support the pro-choice movement argue that it is wrong to deny women and girls the access to the full range of health care treatments available and is viewed as a violation of human rights. What is also important to note about the issue over abortion laws is that they are, in the majority of cases, decided and enforced without a vote from the people. They are created and decided upon by elected officials. While we have the opportunity to vote for officials that support our interests, there is never a guarantee that those interests will come to fruition. Martin Power, quoted earlier in this article, used that argument to promote his anti-abortion view. But the fact that abortion laws are made without a popular vote is much more significant to those who are directly affected by those laws—namely the women and girls who seek out the procedure.
What is wrong is for government officials to decide what these individuals can and cannot do with their own bodies and their own will. This is also true with the legalization of same-sex marriage. While the focus in Northern Ireland has been around the abortion law, it is important to note the importance of legalizing same-sex marriage as well. For many, it may be shocking to learn that an advanced Western democracy like Northern Ireland is just now lifting such restrictive laws. Unfortunately, there are still many countries today that uphold laws that impede an individual’s right to pursue a healthy, happy life.
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