Northern Ireland: 'Draconian' abortion law harshest in Europe

The laws in Northern Ireland relating to abortion are “draconian” and in urgent need of reform, Amnesty International said today, as it published a new report on the issue.

Northern Ireland has the harshest criminal penalty for abortion anywhere in Europe – life imprisonment both for the woman undergoing an unlawful abortion and for anyone assisting her. That sentence even applies in cases where the pregnancy is as a result of rape or incest, or in cases of fatal foetal impairment

Northern Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws are in significant breach of the UK’s international human rights obligations, the report warns.

Amnesty’s research also found that, due to restrictive laws, harsh criminal penalties and a lack of guidance from the Department of Health, medical professionals are fearful of providing even  lawful abortions, leading to a “postcode lottery” for women trying to access abortion advice and services across Northern Ireland. This has resulted in women in certain health trust areas, such as western and rural areas, being unable to access termination of pregnancy services. 

Grainne Teggart, Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland Campaigner, said:

“Northern Ireland’s draconian abortion law is the harshest in Europe.

“That grim distinction should be a wake-up call to politicians.

“The shameful lack of political action on this key issue has helped to create a climate of fear for medical professionals.

“Hundreds of women are forced to leave Northern Ireland every year just to access health care to which they should be entitled. That only adds to the trauma the women experience.

“Northern Ireland’s politicians have shirked their responsibilities to women’s health for too long. The Department of Health needs to fulfil its duties to women and girls in Northern Ireland by publishing proper guidance for its frontline staff, while the Assembly must act without further delay to reform abortion law.”

Dawn Purvis, Programme Director for Marie Stopes Northern Ireland, said:

“The Northern Ireland Assembly forces any woman who is pregnant as a result of rape or incest and wants an abortion to continue with that pregnancy against her will. This is degrading and inhumane treatment.

“Politicians have the power to change this situation and to prove to women that they do care about them, they do value them as equal citizens and they trust them to make choices that are right for them. Until that happens women in Northern Ireland will continue to remain second-class citizens in the United Kingdom.”

Donagh Stenson, British Pregnancy Advisory Service said:

“59614 women since 1970 from NI have had no other choice but to travel to England to seek abortion care.

No politician in a civilised country should force a woman to leave her family and loved ones to make a journey to another jurisdiction for abortion treatment. Taking the decision to end a pregnancy is journey enough for any woman.”

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Northern Ireland: Barriers to accessing abortion services