On Friday, Ireland voted in a landslide to repeal its near-total constitutional ban on abortion, paving the way for far less restrictive abortion laws. But next door in Northern Ireland, things are much different.
At present, women in Northern Ireland can legally have abortions only if pregnancy puts their physical or mental health at risk. Abortions are otherwise banned, even in cases of rape or fatal fetal abnormalities, and doctors who perform abortions outside these strict rules can be imprisoned.
Surveys suggest that Northern Irish voters are no less keen for a change than their neighbors to the south. Last year, the Northern Irish Life and Times Survey, conducted by two Northern Ireland universities, found that about 80 percent of people in the country oppose the current laws. And in January, a United Nations committee found that the United Kingdom, of which Northern Ireland is a part, violates the rights of women in Northern Ireland by restricting their access to abortion.
“Denial of abortion and criminalization of abortion amounts to discrimination against women because it is a denial of a service that only women need,” the vice chair of the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women said. “And it puts women in horrific situations.”
The support for change in Northern Ireland was reinforced Monday when about 400 activists gathered in the capital, Belfast, to demand abortion rights. “It's time that Northern Ireland joins the rest of the world,” activist Shannon Patterson told BBC News. “It's time to progress.”
Such activists want British Prime Minister Theresa May to relax Northern Ireland's laws or to call for a referendum on changing them. Although Northern Ireland has its own parliament, the British government retains the right to shape national policy on several key issues. Abortion rights advocates argue that abortion is a human rights issue and therefore under May’s jurisdiction.
So far, May has declined to act. After Ireland's referendum, May's spokeswoman told reporters that the prime minister believes only Northern Ireland's local government can change the rules. But that's currently impossible. The country has been without a functioning parliament since last year, when Northern Ireland's two main parties stopped working together.
Given that deadlock, many British officials, including cabinet members, want May to step in. Penny Mordaunt, Britain’s minister for women and equalities, told Reuters that Ireland's decision to legalize abortion should bring change north of the Irish border as well. “A historic and great day for Ireland and a hopeful one for Northern Ireland,” she said. “That hope must be met.”
But May's parliamentary majority — and, therefore, her ability to maintain her position as prime minister — relies on support from the socially conservative Democratic Unionist Party, one of the main parties in Northern Ireland. The DUP is opposed to abortion, and its lawmakers voted down a 2016 proposal in Northern Ireland's legislature to ease some abortion regulations.
Arlene Foster, who leads the DUP, told BBC News that abortion is a local issue. “The legislation governing abortion is a devolved matter,” Foster said in a statement after the Irish referendum, using the term for powers that the British Parliament has handed to local governments, “and it is for the Northern Ireland Assembly to debate and decide such issues.”
Foster's comments resonate with Northern Ireland's antiabortion groups, which have vowed to strenuously oppose any efforts to ease restrictions on abortion. Bernadette Smyth, who runs an organization called Precious Life, called the Irish vote “the most tragic day in Irish history.”
“Every unborn child still has the right to life,” she said in a statement. “Northern Ireland is now the beacon of hope to the pro-life movement around the world.”