The 1967 Abortion Act, which other regions of the UK rely on for guidance in relation to termination of pregnancy, was never extended or adopted in Northern Ireland. Abortion law is governed by the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 which criminalises any woman who induces her own abortion or any person who aids her – both, under the law, “shall be guilty of felony, and being convicted thereof shall be kept in penal servitude for life.”
The law in Northern Ireland has been widened by a number of judgements from the 1990s, allowing abortion when a woman’s mental or physical health is in ‘grave’ danger of ‘serious and permanent damage’. Abortion remains illegal if a woman is pregnant as a result of rape or in cases of foetal abnormality.
Abortion is not easily accessible through the NHS, even when a woman clearly has a legal right to one. For women who are pregnant as a result of rape, foetal abnormalities have been identified or for those who feel they simply cannot continue a pregnancy, there are limited choices – carry the pregnancy to term, travel to England for an expensive but legal abortion or to access illegal abortion pills. Over 1,000 women a year find the £800+ needed to travel to England and pay for a private abortion. We do not know how many women induce their own abortions using other methods but we have every reason to believe it amounts to hundreds every year.
Facts and Figures
· A survey carried out by FPA in Northern Ireland in 2008 found nearly two-thirds (62%) of Northern Irish people polled said that abortion should be legal in cases of rape or incest.
· A further FPA survey of gynaecologists in NI showed that 57% would support liberalising the current abortion law and more than two-thirds (76%) agree that abortion should be legal on grounds of foetal abnormality.
· In 2009, medical sociologist Colin Francome surveyed 37/42 gynaecologists working in NI and found that a majority of respondents would support liberalising the current abortion law, with only 32% saying the law should stay as it is. Asked under what conditions they would personally carry out abortions, 70% said foetal abnormality and 49% said where the woman has been raped, although 68% said it should be legal in cases of rape. There was widespread support for abortion being available on the NHS, 73% wanted free abortions for NI women forced to travel for the procedure; and 51% supported major abortion charities being licensed to carry out abortions in Northern Ireland.
· Francome’s survey of GPs in NI found that 70% of respondents agreed that the decision whether or not to continue a pregnancy should be left to the woman in consultation with her doctor. One worrying statistic from the survey of GPs is that 11% had seen evidence of amateur abortion attempts, though hopefully such dangerous practices are no longer happening since the abortion pill became available over the internet.
· In 2009, the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, recommended that the NI Assembly “amend the abortion law to bring it in line with the 1967 Abortion Act with a view to preventing clandestine and unsafe abortions in cases of rape, incest or foetal abnormality.”
Aim of the petition
We are calling on the Northern Ireland Assembly, by International Women’s Day 2014, to hear the UN, medical professionals and, most importantly, the Northern Irish public in their plea to review the current abortion laws, extend the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland, and end the practice of forcing women to continue with unwanted pregnancies, travelling unsupported to access abortion services in England, and using illegal abortion pills or otherwise.