Northern Ireland Takes Critical Step Toward Decriminalization of Abortion


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In contrast to the recent proliferation of abortion bans and restrictions throughout the United States, the overall global trend is toward the liberalization of abortion laws and decriminalization of abortion. For decades, European countries have been at the forefront of this progress, indeed, in the past eighteen months alone a wave of liberalizing reforms has swept across Europe. On July 9th, the United Kingdom became the latest country to follow this pattern when UK lawmakers voted to reform Northern Ireland’s highly restrictive abortion laws. The legislative provisions adopted on July 9th call for the reform of Northern Irish abortion law and require the UK Government to introduce these reforms prior to October 21st, 2019.

Currently, Northern Ireland has some of the strictest abortion laws in the world, which are dramatically out of step with abortion laws across most of Europe and with the rest of the UK. While women in England, Scotland, and Wales can access abortion on broad socio-economic grounds, those in Northern Ireland face the threat of imprisonment for seeking a termination—even in instances of rape or fatal fetal impairment. 

“Highly restrictive abortion laws like those in place in Northern Ireland harm women’s health and violate their human rights. Urgent reforms need to be enacted to decriminalize abortion in Northern Ireland, allowing women and girls to access abortion care legally at home without having to travel overseas,” explained Leah Hoctor, Regional Director for Europe.

This week’s major victory for reproductive rights is the result of indefatigable advocacy of women and activists throughout Northern Ireland. For decades, they have been fighting for the right to safe and legal abortion, and the Center has been proud to provide legal and technical advice in support of these efforts. In 2018 and 2019, we were granted leave to intervene as a third-party before the UK Supreme Court and Northern Ireland High Court in seminal human rights litigation brought by women and organizations in Northern Ireland challenging the jurisdiction’s abortion laws on human rights grounds. 

Photo Credit: Rachel Sample, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 . This photo was cropped for scale.