Abortion timeline: How did NI get to this situation?

Today, the Tory Secretary of State Brandon Lewis handed down an order to health minister Robin Swann, and the Executive in general, telling them they must set up a fully-funded widely-available abortion system.

Thursday, 22nd July 2021, 4:58 pm
Updated Thursday, 22nd July 2021, 5:50 pm
Robin Swann
Robin Swann

He was granted the power to issue such an order earlier this year – but it has further angered the DUP, who see it as another case of the Tories undermining devolution.

So how did NI get here?

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The saga over NI abortion rights is a complex one.

But the origin of this latest twist lies in February 2018, when a UN body called The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) published a report into abortion in Northern Ireland.

CEDAW determined that Northern Irish women are “subjected to grave and systematic violations of rights through being compelled to either travel outside Northern Ireland to procure a legal abortion, or to carry their pregnancy to term”.

This, they said, is “discrimination against women” and could amount to “torture”.

CEDAW demanded that the government repeal the parts of the old Offences Against the Person Act 1861 which deal with abortion, and decreed that new liberalised abortion regulations must be drawn up.

Then in July 2019, Westminster passed a law called The Northern Ireland Executive Formation Act – which basically made CEDAW’s demands legally-binding.

This meant two things:

> Firstly that, as of October 22, 2019, abortion was effectively decriminalised in NI;

> And secondly that, due to an absence of a functioning NI government, the Tories pledged to re-write the Province’s abortion laws themselves.

The new abortion rules which they drew up allowed, from April 1, 2020:

> Abortion for any reason up to 12 weeks;

> Abortion up to 24 weeks “in cases where the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk of injury to the physical or mental health of the regnant woman or girl, greater than the risk of terminating the pregnancy”;

> And abortions with no time limit “to prevent grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman or girl”, in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities, and in cases of “severe fetal impairment”.

The wording “without any gestational time limit” leaves the legal window open technically until birth (although the bulk of abortions take place before the third trimester).

But although the law had changed, UUP health minister Robin Swann said the new regime did not require him to “commission” abortion services in NI (that is, to put in place a fully-fledged system of abortion clinics, for example).

Instead, Mr Swann said he is legally obliged to get Executive approval before doing so.

And since the DUP (alongside some members of his own UUP) are opposed to abortion, no such fully-fledged abortion system yet exists.

Yesterday, the TUV noted that whilst “Westminster still refuses to take action on the Protocol... they are quite prepared to intervene on abortion” – rendering devolution “pointless”.

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