Northern Ireland Abortion FAQs

Nicky Broyd

June 08, 2018


After the people of the Republic of Ireland voted 'yes' in a referendum to end the country's ban on abortion all eyes turned to Northern Ireland, where despite being part of the UK, women can face prison if they have a termination.

This week there has been an emergency debate at Westminster and a Supreme Court ruling on the question of Northern Ireland and abortion. However, although they both highlighted the issue there has been no legal change and so, to keep within the law, women will continue to have to leave NI in order to have the procedure.

Where Does the Law Currently Stand?

Abortion is widely accessible on the NHS in the UK except in NI where it is only allowed in poorly defined 'exceptional circumstances'.

Ever since the 1967 Abortion Act was passed terminations have been allowed in Great Britain up to 24 weeks if two doctors say the pregnancy is a risk to a woman's physical or mental health, or if there is a foetal abnormality.

However, Northern Ireland did not pass the legislation. Instead women there are still governed by the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act which means they can be sent to prison if they have an abortion which is deemed illegal, and health professionals are breaking the law if they carry out the procedure.

A legal abortion in Northern Ireland has to be performed when a woman has been pregnant for less than 9 weeks and 4 days and when the pregnancy is considered a serious, long-term, permanent threat to a woman's life or her physical or mental health. This has been interpreted as meaning abortions are illegal for victims of rape and incest in Northern Ireland and for women who are carrying a foetus with a serious foetal anomaly. 

During 2016-17 there were only 13 terminations of pregnancy in public run (HSC) hospitals in Northern Ireland.

It's harder to know for certain how many women travelled abroad during that time but it's estimated more than 900 made the journey to England and Wales in 2017 for a termination. Some will have attended private clinics and will have paid for the procedure.

Free Care

Since June 2017 women travelling from Northern Ireland to England have been entitled to free NHS abortion health care and also, if they are on low incomes, support with travel costs.

Since November 2017 women from Northern Ireland have been entitled to have free abortions through the NHS in Scotland.

In July 2017, the first minister of Wales, Carwyn Jones was reported as saying the Welsh NHS will fund abortions for women from Northern Ireland. The issue was put out to consultation which ended in February. Responses to the consultation are being considered but have not yet been published.

Has the Referendum in Ireland Changed Things? 

It's shone a light on the system, which charities and health organisations have been trying to do for years.

However, it has also highlighted the deep divides that still exist in NI on the issue of abortion. 

There are those who believe the refusal to allow women in NI access to reproductive health care services available in the rest of the UK is an abuse of their human rights, where others argue the law protects the rights of the unborn.

Is Change Likely?

Health in Northern Ireland is a devolved matter which means decisions are made in Stormont, not Westminster, by Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) not MPs.

However, the power-sharing administration at Stormont collapsed more than a year ago and so any debate by MLAs on abortion is unable to take place.

Into this vacuum Westminster MPs have started to speak out.  Labour MP Stella Creasy, with cross-party support, held an emergency debate in the House of Commons calling for legal reform to give women in NI the right to choose. She called for repeal of the 1861 Offences against the Person Act, which was originally passed in Westminster for the entire UK.

A case brought before the Supreme Court by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) was dismissed on a legal technicality but a majority of judges did say NI's abortion law was not compatible with human rights in cases of fatal foetal abnormality and sexual crime. This may add to the growing pressure on politicians to deal with the issue but they are not obliged to make any changes.