A Brief History of Abortion in Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, so you could be forgiven for assuming that abortion is legal there. It is not. In fact, Northern Ireland has some of the most restrictive abortion rules in the Western world.

The 1967 Abortion Act gave women in the rest of the UK firm legal protection when seeking abortions, set the conditions in which an abortion can be carried out, and freed women from prosecution if they had an abortion. It has been revised since, but is generally regarded as a landmark part of equalities legislation.

Because Northern Ireland is a devolved assembly, it can choose most of its own laws. Even though it is possible to travel to the rest of the UK to have an abortion, women can still be, and are, prosecuted and imprisoned for having abortions.

Why Northern Ireland Bans Abortion

The abortion laws in Northern Ireland run on roughly religious ground. It is the view of many Christians that as soon as the child is conceived, it is a child and has all the protections of a child. This is, on the face of it, a reasonable view. It does not, however, reflect the reality of the need for abortions.


The Offences Against the Person Act 1861 and the 1945 Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) define a foetus as a person, regardless of the age. This equates abortion to murder. In Northern Ireland, the maximum term for obtaining an abortion is life imprisonment. In reality, this rarely happens, but it has done and will continue to do so as long as the now 80-year-old legislation is in place.

Abortion is illegal even in cases of rape and incest. The fundamental view that it is not the child’s fault that they were conceived in a traumatic or socially unacceptable way hold sway. Where as many countries have found a balance between the rights of the woman not to have to carry a baby conceived in such a traumatic way and the rights of the child to exist, the legislation falls heavily on the side of the child in Northern Ireland.

Foetal abnormalities and even children who will never be born alive are exempt from legal abortion. The only way a woman can obtain an abortion in Northern Ireland is to demonstrate that “the mother may die or suffer long-term harm, which is serious, to her physical or mental health”.

Although there have been some revisions to this law, it has remained largely the same since the 19th century. Women have had to travel to the UK for abortions since 1967. Many poorer women who could not afford the travel had dangerous, illegal abortions that caused many to die. The shame and stigma attached to both abortion and babies born out of wedlock ruined many women’s lives and ensured that many thousands of children were brought up in terrible conditions in orphanages, having in some cases been literally stolen from their mothers.

Human Rights Legislation

Some campaigners have been asserting that the Human Rights Act 1988 is incompatible with the current laws on abortion. The disagreement of the two acts centres around cases of foetal abnormality, rape, and incest. The Human Rights Act puts emphasis on the health of the woman and her right to choose how she deals with traumatic events, specifically with regards to her right to a private and family life; the Criminal Justice Acts maintain that the act is still essentially murder.

On June 7th 2018, the Supreme Court of the UK upheld the view that the two acts were incompatible, but because of some legal complications, the court held that it did not have jurisdiction to declare this.

It is likely that the laws will be changed. Northern Ireland has quickly shed its religious leanings and a new secular generation brought up with the promise of human rights and the easy availability of abortion just over the border. Westminster faces some pressure to impose a more modern abortion act on Northern Ireland, which would be politically dangerous but would likely have majority support from the population, whom in polls have expressed support for a revised abortion act.

The number of terminations by girls and women in Northern Ireland is far lower than in other countries and has been falling gradually for over a decade. This is likely due to the availability of abortion in Great Britain, not the deterrent effect of the laws. Critics maintain that a lower level of abortion is preferable, while others assert that abortion is inevitable and should be made legal to reflect that.

Irish Referendum

The recent referendum in the Republic of Ireland has brought the issue to the fore for many people. The ROI was a staunchly Catholic country until very recently and their laws reflected this, being as restrictive as those north of the border. With the fall of the Catholic Church’s influence and a young, modern, cosmopolitan population, attitudes have changed very quickly. The 2018 referendum showed very strong support for more abortion rights for girls and women, and many are saying that Northern Ireland should follow suit.