Northern Ireland Grudgingly Legalizes Abortion And Same-Sex Marriage

The British Parliament, amidst the collapse of Northern Ireland’s local government, has just announced the legalization of both abortion and same-sex marriage in the traditionally conservative Northern Ireland.

According to the New York Times, due to the collapse of Northern Ireland’s governing assembly three years ago, British Parliament was able to add a mandate in an amendment to a routine bill that would change the course of the country’s traditionally conservative and pro-life medical policy as well as decriminalize and embrace same -sex marriage. The amendment has been justified, at the very least, by its correction of laws that have been argued to violate the United Kingdom’s human rights principles.

According to the Independent, Northern Ireland is the country that currently holds the world record for the longest period without a sitting government; in order to have a sitting government, both the unionist party and the nationalist party must join together in a power-sharing compromise in order to lead an assembly, both with equal power and full support for the other. Due to controversies involving the resignation of Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, a 2016 ‘Cash for Ash’ scandal, and the failure to subsequently agree upon a bipartisan deal, the government collapsed and has been run by civil servants with limited funding.

The ability for the British Parliament to step in and implement policy in the country has been met with controversy, and pro-life and church affiliated groups have taken to the streets in protest against the bill. However, statistics show that most of people in Northern Ireland are in favor of making abortion available—a medical procedure that has been heavily criminalized in the country. According to the Washington Post, the rest of the United Kingdom has allowed abortions up to the 24th week of pregnancy, a law that went into effect in 1967 but that had not been extended to Northern Ireland due to sharp criticism from the conservative territory.

Interestingly, according to the New York Times, the legalization of same-sex marriage has not been met with the same level of intense scrutiny as compared to the lift of the abortion ban; both pro-life activists and pro-choice celebrators took to the streets on Tuesday. Many of those in favor of the lifted ban have expressed their relief that women would have access to basic health care and no longer have to worry about reprisal from the government and others. Northern Ireland’s abortion laws have been notoriously harsh; legal action can be taken against an individual who had been suspected of just seeking an abortion, and medical professionals were at risk of legal trouble if giving advice on how to acquire a safe abortion. Many women were required to do unsafe and sometimes deadly at-home procedures, buy sketchy medication on the internet, or leave the territory in order to receive a safe abortion legally. Traditionally, the abortion ban applied to all abortions that did not prevent the death of the mother in question; even pregnancies with known birth defects or those of rape victims and incest were banned.

The New York Times has reported on Precarious Life—the largest anti-abortion, pro-life group in Northern Ireland—and their intentions to continuously lobby and fight against these new abortion laws. The Washington Post has quoted Bernadette Smyth—the director of Precarious Life—who said that “abortion is murder” and alluded to the Troubles conflict in Northern Ireland which took more than 3,500 lives as comparison. “Peace must continue in the womb,” Smyth said in a statement quoted by the Washington Post.

Unfortunately, the road to freedom for women and those in the LGBTQ+ community in Northern Ireland is far from over. As seen in the U.S. and elsewhere, stigma and discrimination still surround freedom of choice—whether this be the choice of a partner or the choice of a medical procedure. These stigmas often translate to fear, shame, and hatred. As the logistics of this new bill unravel in the weeks to come, women will still most likely seek unsafe methods; however, the U.K. plans to mitigate costs of travel for those in need of abortion now. Same-sex marriage will be officially legalized officially in February. It is important to discourage stigmas and rage from common discourse while also maintaining a balance that encourages the peaceful and democratic practice of freedom of speech, especially in moments of rapid change and demonstration.

Ashley Lamoreaux