The Best Abortion Law Is No Abortion Law at All, 02/12/2015 by Ann Furedi

Women in Northern Irelandrepealing the 8th amendment of abortion law

Brian Lawless/PA Archive

It would take the hardest of hearts not to welcome Monday’s High Court judgement in Northern Ireland, which has opened the door for women pregnant as a result of rape or incest, or with a fetus affected by a fatal fetal abnormality, to access abortion.
Until now, under a nineteenth-century law that prohibits abortion, medical teams could be jailed for life for carrying out abortions even in these extreme circumstances. Unlike the rest of the UK, the Abortion Act 1967 has never applied to Northern Ireland, and since devolution Stormont has steadfastly rejected any suggestion that the law should be changed. Consequently, abortion is only permitted if the woman’s life is directly threatened, or if she would suffer serious and long-term damage to her health.
Mr Justice Horner may have changed this by ruling that the ban was in breach of human-rights law, and should be changed as it is ‘unlikely to be grasped by the legislature in the foreseeable future’. Still, it is not over yet. Following suggestions that the attorney general may appeal the ruling, and in light of Stormont’s previous intransigence, Horner has suggested that a referendum may be required to enact his conclusions.

A referendum on abortion in Northern Ireland could result in some interesting challenges for local politicians. In Northern Ireland, as in the Irish Republic, hundreds of women end unwanted pregnancies already. Either they travel to England or other European countries, where they must pay for treatment, or, increasingly, they obtain medication on the web, as well as through friends or self-help networks, to induce an early miscarriage at home. Neither of these options is ideal. Travel is expensive and self-treatment carries risks – medicines bought online are not always what you think they are. What’s more, when women try to go abroad, customs officials try to intercept them. However these methods have resulted in a significant change to the way abortion is understood: it is more normalised and openly talked about than ever.
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