LONDON — The passage of Alabama’s strictest-in-the-nation abortion bill has renewed calls to overhaul Northern Ireland’s abortion regulations, which are among the most restrictive in the developed world.
Under the Alabama abortion legislation, signed by Republican Gov. Kay Ivey on Wednesday, doctors who perform abortions could face up to 99 years or life in prison, but a pregnant woman would not face penalties.
In Northern Ireland, both women who have abortions and those who assist them can face up to life in prison.
“The law in Northern Ireland is considerably more restrictive than Alabama,” said Fiona de Londras, a law professor at the University of Birmingham.
“This is not an instance where criminalization is just on the books. There have been charges,” she added.
In one high-profile case currently in the courts, prosecutors in Northern Ireland brought charges against a mother who bought abortion pills online for her then 15-year-old daughter, who was in a physically and mentally abusive relationship. After the pregnancy was terminated, the mother shared the information with her doctor, who in turn referred her to the police. The mother has challenged the decision to prosecute her, and a judgment is expected imminently.
Pro-choice campaigners here have pledged solidarity with their counterparts in the United States and are calling for the liberalization of British laws that date back to the 19th century.
Emma Campbell, co-chair of Alliance for Choice, an abortion rights group in Northern Ireland, said that it’s surprising to see people in Britain who are “flabbergasted at what’s happening in Alabama but have never mentioned Northern Ireland, which in effect has a worse law than what is being proposed in Alabama.”
Her organization wrote a letter of warning to activists in Alabama.
“You and the people you help might actually get arrested, you might have your homes searched and your workplaces raided. Maybe a GP will inform the police of your illegal behaviour, or a flatmate … either way you really have to know who you can trust with the information about your medical procedure, if you access pills at home because you cannot travel,” the letter said.
Stella Creasy, a Labour lawmaker, said those in Britain outraged at Alabama should also look to their own backyard.
She tweeted: “Hey uk progressive gents — women in Northern Ireland AS WELL as doctors facing life imprisonment in the UK for an abortion. [Alabama] terrible and our own country reprimanded by the UN for our own human rights abuses. Speak out at home as well as against trump & co.”
Creasy successfully campaigned for Northern Irish women who travel to other parts of the United Kingdom to have access to funded terminations. Before that change in 2017, a Northern Irish woman who had made her way to England was charged about $1,150 for the procedure.
Since the Abortion Act of 1967, abortion in Britain has been legal in most circumstances up to 24 weeks, as long as it’s signed off by two doctors. That law applies to England, Scotland and Wales, but it does not extend to Northern Ireland, where the Offences Against the Person Act of 1861 still prevails.
Polling by YouGov, conducted shortly after the Republic of Ireland overturned its abortion ban last year, found that 65 percent of people in Northern Ireland say abortion should not be a crime. Support for a right to choose an abortion rises further when a woman’s health, rape, incest or fatal fetal abnormality are at issue.
But those who want to change the law in Northern Ireland have run into multiple obstacles.
The devolved, power-sharing government that is supposed to lead Northern Ireland fell apart more than two years ago and has not been active since.
In its absence, the Conservative government in Westminster has rebuffed efforts by lawmakers to repeal sections of the 1861 act, which would decriminalize abortion across the U.K. The Conservatives, who argue that the issue is one for Northern Ireland to decide, are propped up in government by Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which opposes changing the abortion law.
Grainne Teggart, Amnesty UK’s Northern Ireland campaign manager, said her group was “horrified by what we are seeing in the U.S., which is a terrifying rollback on reproductive rights.” But she said the United Kingdom is “no better” and called on the British government to “lead on this issue, not lag behind.”