By Lowri Pitcher
At midnight on Monday October 21, legislation to legalise abortion and same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland entered into force after attempts to halt the law by unionist parties failed to make an impact.
Under the Executive Formation Act 2019, abortion will become decriminalised immediately and same-sex marriage will become legal in January 2020.
Before this law entered into force, abortions were only permitted if a woman’s life is at risk or if there is a risk of permanent or serious damage to the individual’s physical or mental health. Beforehand, rape, incest or diagnosis of fatal fetal abnormality where medics believe that the baby will die before, during or after birth were not sufficient grounds for legal abortion in Northern Ireland.
In July 2019, Members of Parliament passed legislation which meant the UK Government could assume responsibility for introducing new regulations on abortion and same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland unless the devolved government was restored by October 21.
This prompted the first sitting in the devolved assembly, Stormont, in nearly three years. The Northern Ireland Assembly had not sat since January 2017 after the Deputy First Minister resigned and Arlene Foster, Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) lost her job as First Minister, causing the devolved government to collapse.
Those opposed to the decriminalisation, including the DUP, subsequently signed a petition to recall the Assembly in the hope of blocking the legislation entering into force. However, the first sitting in Stormont in nearly 1000 days ended abruptly. In order to debate and potentially block the legal changes, representatives had to complete the first point on the order paper, electing a new Speaker. This was ultimately unresolved as the election requires cross-community support which could not be found.
Less than an hour after the sitting commenced, the session was suspended after various parties walked out of the chamber. Ultimately, this meant that no action could be made in order to block the legislation and the law entered into force on Tuesday morning.
Abortion and same-sex marriage have long been contentious issues across the globe with fraught controversy being seen in US states such as Georgia recently. The topic is especially contentious in Northern Ireland. The 1861 Offences Against the Person Act criminalised attempts to cause a miscarriage which could be punishable by imprisonment. Later, the 1945 Criminal Justice Act provided an exception for acting to cause a miscarriage “in good faith for the purpose only of preserving the life of the mother”. Then. despite the 1967 Abortion Act decriminalising abortion in England, Scotland and Wales, it did not extend to Northern Ireland and has remained illegal since.
As the legislation comes into effect, Northern Ireland’s abortion legislation will change from being one of the most punitive in Europe to being one of the most liberal, potentially allowing abortions up to 28 weeks (4 weeks longer than the current limit of 24 weeks in Great Britain).
The UK must now ensure that regulations for free, legal and local abortion services are available by March 31, 2020, as well as allowing same-sex marriages by January 2020 which are expected to start taking place during the week of Valentine’s Day, 2020.