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Women in the UK do not all have equal access to abortion. Northern Ireland has different laws to the rest of the UK that only allow women to have an abortion in ‘highly exceptional circumstances’.  Although there is no formal guidance on what ‘highly exceptional circumstances’ are, they do not include rape, incest or if the foetus has a fatal abnormality - where the foetus would not survive outside of the womb. 

But new public opinion research shows that this situation is unacceptable to most people in the country. There is clear support to change the law from across all communities in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.  

Research conducted by Millward Brown in September 2014 polling a representative sample of the Northern Ireland population found:

  • Seven out of ten people think an abortion should be available in cases of rape and incest
  • Three in five (60%) think an abortion should be available in cases of fatal foetal abnormality - when the foetus has no chance of survival

‘It is shocking that there is one rule that applies to women in Northern Ireland and another that applies to women in the rest of the UK. The results of this poll show that abortion laws in Northern Ireland are out of date, and that politicians are way out of step with the majority of the electorate.

The vast majority of people from all communities in Northern Ireland want laws reformed to allow women the right to choose to end an unwanted pregnancy in extreme circumstances. This would at the very least bring Northern Ireland into line with the bare minimum of international laws and standards.’

Naomi McAuliffe, Campaign Manager Amnesty International UK

UK wide support for equal abortion laws

Similar research carried out last month by YouGov polled a representative sample of people in England, Scotland and Wales, and found that:

  • More than two thirds of people across the rest of the UK do not know or wrongly assume that access to abortion is the same throughout the UK

  • Over three quarters (76%) think it’s unacceptable that women from Northern Ireland have to travel to access abortion and are required to pay for an NHS service that is free to women in the rest of the UK

  • 72% think that laws relating to abortion should be the same across the UK

The current legal situation

Northern Ireland is not covered by the 1967 Abortion Act which applies in the rest of the UK. Instead laws covering abortion in Northern Ireland are governed by the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act and the Criminal Justice act from 1945 which makes it a crime, that carries a life sentence, for a woman to have an unlawful abortion or for any one to carry out an unlawful abortion.

Abortions are only allowed in ‘highly exceptional circumstances’  to save a woman's life or if there is a risk of permanent and serious damage to her mental or physical health. There are no formal processes or guidance on how women can access abortion in ‘highly exceptional circumstances’. ‘Highly exceptional circumstances’ do not include rape, incest or if the foetus has an anomaly and there is no chance of survival.

In 2013 the Northern Ireland Department of Health said 51 abortions were performed in Northern Ireland. The fpa have said that up to 1000 women come from Northern Ireland to the rest of the UK for an abortion every year.

In the rest of the UK, an abortion can be carried out in the first 24 weeks of a pregnancy, with the agreement of two doctors that an abortion would cause less damage to a woman's physical or mental health than continuing with the pregnancy.

An abortion can be carried out at a later stage if it is necessary to save the woman’s life, to prevent permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman or if there is substantial risk that the child will be born with serious physical or mental disabilities.

The Northern Ireland’s Department of Justice is currently reviewing its laws on access to abortion to include cases of fatal foetal abnormality, rape and incest. The public consultation on abortion legislation closes next January.

Human rights law says that abortion should be legal where it is necessary to protect the physical or mental health of the pregnant women and in the cases of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormality. Northern Ireland does not currently meet human rights standards.

We are campaigning to change laws, policy and practice on access to abortion in Northern Ireland to at least bring it up to the bare minimum of international standards.

Milward Brown opinion poll results - October 2014