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New poll confirms overwhelming majority of people in Northern Ireland want to decriminalise abortion

Pro choice rally in Belfast 2016

It’s the only country in the UK where a woman can be jailed for having an abortion. In Northern Ireland, women face a lifetime in prison for terminating a pregnancy – a procedure freely available on the NHS to women in the rest of the UK.

The laws putting women behind bars were drawn up in the Nineteenth Century – and that’s where they belong. New research out today confirms that the law is out of step with public attitudes.

Lifetime in prison for an abortion – in the UK

A woman sits on a hospital bed

Even when a woman is pregnant as a result of rape, incest, or when the foetus has no medical chance of surviving, she faces life imprisonment in Northern Ireland, thanks to a law drawn up in 1861 and not updated since. Medical professionals who assist women with abortions also face life in prison.

Last year, in a historic ruling, Northern Ireland’s High Court found that the abortion ban is denying women their human rights. But the law remains unchanged, and even this year, after the ruling, women have been put on trial for having or assisting with abortions. Meanwhile, the government is appealing the findings of the High Court that women’s human rights are breached through the abortion ban.

The laws have created a system where women who can afford to travel to the mainland UK – often on their own – for an abortion, facing shame, stigma and discrimination in their families, workplaces and communities, while women unable to travel risk the danger of taking abortion pills without medical support in Northern Ireland – and a lifetime in prison, if they’re found out.

The ban in brief


Poll: Public doesn’t think abortion should be a crime

“These poll findings demonstrate an overwhelming demand for change to Northern Ireland’s draconian abortion laws. This is not a small margin of support for women’s access to abortion, it’s a definitive landslide.”
Adrienne Peltz, Amnesty Northern Ireland Campaigner

The research shows that the majority of people in Northern Ireland don’t think that abortion should be a crime at all (58%), while there is even more widespread support to decriminalise abortion for women who are pregnant as a result of rape or incest, or the foetus has no chance of survival, with 69.5% of people polled saying they’d like to see women stop being jailed in these circumstances.

The poll, conducted by independent research company Millward Brown Ulster, collected the views of 1,000 people across Northern Ireland through face-to-face interviews with people living in a mix of urban and rural areas, representing a range of religious and political views.

  • 72% want abortion to be decriminalised in cases of rape or incest (sex crimes)
  • 69% are for abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality – where medical professionals have deemed there no chance of the foetus surviving
  • 58% of people asked think women who have abortions shouldn’t be punished as criminals
  • 59% of people believe that medical staff shouldn’t be imprisoned for assisting women with abortion

A minority of people support the existing ban.

  • Only 16% of people believe the law should not change, and that women should face prison for having an abortion when they when they are pregnant as a result of rape or incest, or the foetus has no chance of survival
  • Only 22% believe women should face criminal punishment for terminating any kind of pregnancy.

Marked increase in support for abortion access

The poll signals that public attitudes have strengthened recently in favour of decriminalising abortion. Two years ago, polling company Millward Brown put the same questions to a similar sample of people, with the results showing that a majority favoured decriminalisation. Compare the 2014 research with the 2016 poll, and there are marked differences in favour of changing the law.

In 2014, 69% of people in Northern Ireland supported access to abortion in cases of rape or incest, a figure which now sits at 72%. Meanwhile, 60% of respondents supported access to abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality – this has grown to 67%.

Northern Ireland must stop denying women their human rights

We’re calling for an outright end to the ban on abortion in Northern Ireland. We support the High Court ruling that the ban is breaching the rights of women in the cases of fatal foetal abnormality and where the pregnancy is a result of sex crimes. Now the ruling needs to bring a change in the law.

We’re calling on Northern Ireland’s leaders to bring the law into the 21st Century, and stop denying women their rights.