Northern Ireland: Belfast city council votes to decriminalize abortion

Northern Ireland: Belfast city council votes to decriminalize abortion

The Belfast City Council [official website] voted on Monday to decriminalize abortion upon requests from Amnesty International, Family Planning Association and Both Lives Matter [advocacy websites].

The council passed [BelfastLive report] the motion with a 34-15 vote and five abstentions. Councillor Kate Nicholl proposed [meeting webcast] the motion, and Councillor Mary Ellen Campbell joined, in response to growing numbers of women avoiding professional medical care for abortions. Under Section 5 of the Criminal Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1967 [text], healthcare professionals have a duty to report instances of abortions. The fear of facing prosecution deters many women from seeking care for abortion complications. The result is that many women buy abortion pills online.

A case is set for judicial review later this month, concerning a mother’s prosecution for buying her daughter abortion pills after the daughter was raped. The court granted judicial review [Guardian report] to determine whether prosecution for abortion under 1861 Offences Against the Person Act violated the daughter and mother’s human rights.

The proposed motion [text, PDF] stated in-part:

[T]he Council believes that abortion should be regulated like any other medical care and not by criminal law, while still enabling incidents of malpractice to be addressed, as with any other health service, through the general criminal law or medical disciplinary procedures … A woman who has an abortion is not a criminal, nor are healthcare professionals who care for them, and the law should not treat them as such.

Northern Ireland has recently faced criticism for having the harshest abortion laws in the UK. In February the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) stated [press release] that women and girls in Northern Ireland are faced with systematic violations of their rights because the UK is forcing them to either carry their pregnancy to term or travel outside of the country to have a legal abortion [JURIST report]. The government issued a response [statement, PDF] to the recommendations stating that the “Committee’s findings and recommendations which focus on changes to the criminal law on abortion cannot be addressed in the absence of a legislature with authority to legislate on such matters in Northern Ireland.”