BELFAST, Northern Ireland — Traditionally conservative Northern Ireland is about to legalize both abortion and same-sex marriage, a head-snapping about-face that was imposed on the territory by the British Parliament.
The changes, bitterly resisted by anti-abortion and church groups, were mandated in an amendment to a routine bill on governance of Northern Ireland that Parliament passed in July amid a power vacuum created by the collapse of the region’s governing assembly nearly three years ago.
The amendment will go into effect at midnight on Monday, weeks after the High Court in Belfast rebuffed a legal challenge, ruling that Northern Ireland’s 158-year-old abortion laws are incompatible with the United Kingdom’s human rights commitments.
The judgment was a major victory for women’s rights activists, who had felt left behind after the Republic of Ireland voted to legalize abortion last year. Although Northern Ireland is a part of the United Kingdom, and the majority of its people say they would like abortion to be made available, the regional power-sharing government had blocked abortion reform before collapsing in 2017 over sectarian divides.
British lawmakers saw the political paralysis as an opportunity, and, during a Parliamentary sitting in July, overwhelmingly voted to legalize same-sex marriage and abortion. While both have been hot-button issues in the United States and other countries, same-sex marriage has not stirred the intense reaction in Northern Ireland that the lifting of the abortion ban has.
For activists who support making abortion legal, the change was long overdue.
“For too long, women and girls in Northern Ireland have been left behind their counterparts in the rest of the U.K. when it comes to their human rights,” said Stella Creasy, a British lawmaker for the main opposition Labour Party, who put forward the amendment to extend abortion rights to Northern Ireland.
“Today, women can know that their houses will not be raided for abortion pills,” Ms. Creasy said. “They will not be reported to the police if they seek aftercare at the doctor’s, and they will not be dragged through the courts and threatened with prison just for accessing basic health care.”
Before now, Northern Ireland had one of the world’s most restrictive abortion laws, prohibiting the procedure in almost every circumstance except for when the mother’s life is in danger. In cases of rape, incest or fetal abnormalities, women have had to either carry the pregnancy to term or travel outside the territory for the termination. Violations of the ban carry severe penalties, including life imprisonment
When the Marie Stopes family planning clinic opened in Belfast in 2012 and started providing abortions for women eligible under the law, hundreds of anti-abortion activists staged protests, which continued on a smaller scale until the clinic shut down in 2017.
“They blocked the entrance. They stood in front of them. They tried to lure them to their own place down the street,” said Dawn Purvis, the former director of the clinic. “They showed them plastic fetuses in buckets of blood and held posters and placards outside.”
Activists who favor legalizing abortion now worry that the decriminalization will embolden the anti-abortion movement and propel them to use the same aggressive tactics they have employed in the Republic of Ireland — opening fake abortion clinics and help lines designed to obstruct abortions.
“Now that the police and courts won’t be able to do anything, the pro-lifers are going to step in harder and try and traumatize us at every opportunity,” said Milly Cunningham, a Northern Ireland native who traveled for an abortion when she was 19 and now lives in London, where she volunteers as a host for Northern Irish women seeking abortions.
“They receive all their funding and training from the U.S., so we are expecting quite a strong response from them, which can be quite scary, especially when you are pregnant and vulnerable,” she said.
Precious Life, the biggest anti-abortion group in Northern Ireland, has organized protests and vigils as part of a “fight back” campaign against the amendment. Its leaders say they will continue to lobby against allowing abortions.
“When Gods warriors go down on their knees, their battle is not over it has just begun,” the group’s director, Bernadette Smyth, wrote in a Facebook post on Sunday.
Under the government’s new abortion guidelines, all existing investigations and prosecutions against women who have sought abortions will be dropped from Tuesday. That includes charges brought against a woman who helped her 15-year-old daughter obtain abortion pills after the teenager became pregnant from an abusive partner.
A public consultation on the proposed legal framework for abortion will open after Tuesday, and full services are scheduled to be rolled out in Northern Ireland by March 31. Until then, all health professionals there who are approached by women considering terminations must provide information about state-funded abortion services.
The government said it recognized that during the interim period women may continue to try to buy medical abortion pills, which cannot be obtained legally without a prescription. However, those who require medical help after using such pills bought online will be able to seek assistance in Northern Ireland, and health professionals will not be obliged to report the offense.
Over all, the guidelines for the interim period have been welcomed by experts, though some questions remain.
Fiona Bloomer, an abortion policy researcher at Ulster University, said that women who cannot travel for abortions have not been given specific consideration, and that it was not clear whether the funding for travel covers partners and carers who may wish to accompany them.
The main priority for activists and experts now is to ensure that the consultation on providing services will be rolled out without restrictions or delays.
Even after the provisions are rolled out, activists say that the battle against stigma and the deep divisions surrounding the issue will continue. For women who had painful experiences under the restriction laws, the next few months will also be about processing it all.
“I had a horrendous experience with the pills,” said Kellie Turtle, a women’s rights activist who attempted a self-administered abortion at her home in Northern Ireland in 2016. “I didn’t find it liberating or empowering to be taking the matter into my own hands. It felt like you were totally on your own, you were dumped, basically, to go away and deal with this thing and silence and shame.”
Ms. Turtle spent days in bed in excruciating pain, and after three doses realized that the pills were not working. That night she booked flights to Liverpool, England, for an abortion at a clinic.
“I think the reason I had such an amazing experience in Liverpool was because it contrasted so much to walk into a place where everyone treated you with respect and understood what you were going through,” she said. “It was clinical, which isn’t what everyone wants, I know, but for me, it just felt safe after the experience I’d just had of lying in my bed for two days in excruciating pain knowing that I couldn’t tell anyone.”
On Monday, Northern Ireland’s Assembly was set to reconvene for the first time in nearly three years after 31 members signed a petition in a last-ditch attempt to prevent the new abortion law from going into effect — an effort that analysts said was likely to fail.
Ceylan Yeginsu is a London-based reporter. She joined The Times in 2013, and was previously a correspondent in Turkey covering politics, the migrant crisis, the Kurdish conflict, and the rise of Islamic State extremism in Syria and the region. @CeylanWrites • Facebook
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