Abortion law in Northern Ireland

The Abortion Act 1967 never extended to Northern Ireland, where abortion continued (and continues) to be regulated by provisions in criminal law. Criminal law remains reserved under the Northern Ireland Act 1998 but is due to be devolved to the NI Assembly as part of the St Andrew’s Agreement.

Legal basis for abortion in NI

In response to uncertainty regarding the legal position of abortion in NI, the NI Department of Health, Social Service and Public Safety (DHSSPS) issued guidelines in March 2009. These state that an abortion would only be legal where:

• it is necessary to preserve the life of the woman, or
• there is a risk of real and serious adverse effect on her physical or mental health, which is either long term or permanent.4
Fetal abnormality is not in itself grounds for an abortion under NI law, and the definitions of risk and serious adverse effects tend to be more strictly interpreted than the corresponding grounds in the Abortion Act 1967 which apply in the rest of the UK.

Attempts to change NI abortion law

During the parliamentary stages of the Northern Ireland Bill in 1998, Ministers said that it was the Government’s intention that responsibility for criminal justice matters, including abortion, would be transferred to the Northern Ireland Assembly when conditions were appropriate.6 In the meantime, the Government was aware of the strength of feeling on the issue in Northern Ireland, and pledged that it would not impose any change on the people of Northern Ireland against their will.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ekGdrc7t5dM Most recently, an attempt was made to extend to extend the Abortion Act 1967 to Northern Ireland during passage of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008. Amendment NC30 was tabled on 22 July 2008, after the committee stages:

To move the following Clause:— ‘(1) Section 7 of the Abortion Act 1967 (c. 87) (short title, commencement and extent) is amended as follows. (2) For subsection (3) substitute— “(3) This Act extends to Northern Ireland.”’.

The Minister of State, Department of Health, Dawn Primarolo, successfully proposed a programme motion at the commencement of the debate on the Bill’s Third Reading on 22 October 2008. This had the effect of ending debate at 6pm and placing debate on new clauses third in the order of proceedings. No clauses relating to amendment of the Abortion Act 1967 were subsequently considered. In debating the programme motion the proposed amendment relating to Northern Ireland was raised by both Diane Abbott and John McDonnell MP.