Queen's Policy Engagement

Abortion attitudes and legislation

Dr Paula Devine looks at abortion legislation in Northern Ireland and asks whether it is out of step with public attitudes. 

Abortion attitudes and legislation

27 April marks 50 years since the Abortion Act 1967 came into effect. The Act made abortion legal in England, Scotland and Wales, provided two doctors agree that the woman meets a number of criteria.  On 24 April, ARK (a joint initiative between Queen’s University and Ulster University) will screen the film ‘Kind to Women’ at Queen’s Film Studio.  This documentary contains interviews with doctors and nurses who had to deal with the effects of widespread backstreet abortion before the 1967 Act, to some of the women who survived such abortions, and to some of the leading campaigners who worked to change the law.  After the film, Goretti Horgan (Ulster University) and Rachel Powell (QUB Students’ Union Equality & Diversity Officer) will take part in a Q&A.

The Abortion Act does not apply in Northern Ireland, and the law on abortion here remains the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act.  Access to abortion in Northern Ireland is only permitted if a woman’s life is at risk or there is risk to her mental or physical health that is long term or permanent.  Foetal abnormalities (even if fatal), rape and incest are not circumstances in which abortions can be performed legally.

However, the findings of the 2016 Northern Ireland Life and Times (NILT) survey suggest that abortion legislation here is out of step with public attitudes.  There is very strong support for changes to the law in a range of circumstances, with strongest support for cases where the life or the health of the pregnant woman is at risk, in cases of fatal and serious foetal abnormality, and where a pregnancy is a result of rape or incest.

As with most social attitudes, however, some conflicting views emerged in the survey. On the one hand, a clear majority (63%) agreed that “It is a woman’s right to choose whether or not to have an abortion”. At the same time, the NILT findings indicate that there is opposition to abortion being allowed where a woman wants one because she has lost her job or is starting a new job, or where a family is on a low income and feels it cannot afford another child.

The Republic of Ireland has traditionally been regarded as being a more conservative society than its neighbours. However, recent legislative changes would suggest otherwise.  Most recently, six out of ten voters in a referendum in 2015 gave support for same-sex marriage.  Significantly, Ireland was the first country in the world to legalise same-sex marriage by a national referendum.

Of particular relevance to the ARK film event is the forthcoming referendum on 25 May on abortion.  In 1983, the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution of Ireland equated the right to life of the mother with that of the unborn from the moment of conception. As a result, many doctors say that women’s lives have been put in danger.  However, if the Eighth Amendment is repealed as a result of the referendum, the government has said that it will introduce legislation to liberalise abortion laws for the first time.

Were that to happen, then Northern Ireland would be the only part of these islands where access to abortion is still covered only by a law introduced before women had the vote, and before the light bulb was invented. The pressure on legislators to bring the law here into line with international human rights standards would certainly increase.  Not least, the NILT data provide important evidence of public opinion which is vital to open this debate.


Goretti Horgan is a lecturer in Social Policy in the School of School of Applied Social and Policy Sciences, Ulster University. She is Policy Director of ARK.

Dr Paula Devine
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Dr Paula Devine is Co-Director of ARK, which aims to make social science information on Northern Ireland available to the widest possible audience. Paula is based in the School of Social Sciences, Education and Social Work at Queen's University Belfast.

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