At the beginning of 2018, abortion services were almost completely restricted on the entire island of Ireland. Both north and south of the border, women’s reproductive rights were almost entirely absent. The 8th amendment to the Irish constitution was responsible for this in the Republic while two laws in Northern Ireland made it illegal to attempt to cause a miscarriage and allowed for termination to take place only to preserve the life of the mother.
Today, abortion services are far more accessible, in the north and south. Many see this as the issue being settled. Recent events in the Northern Ireland assembly and an upcoming review due to take place in the Oireachtas, however, have once again thrown the matter into people’s minds and have highlighted how the abortion debate will continue to be a contentious political topic well into the future.
The referendum to repeal the 8th amendment will go down in Irish history as an event of enormous social change. The near-total ban on abortion services being written in the constitution gave the republic one of the most restrictive laws in the world. Jubilant scenes were seen in Dublin Castle in May 2018 when the country voted overwhelmingly to repeal the 8th. Politicians, like Leo Varadkar and Simon Harris, who campaigned for repeal basked in the celebrations, waving to the crowd, and jostling for a prime position in front of the press from Ireland and around the world.
One of the most memorable scenes that day was Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald and the deputy first minister of Northern Ireland Michelle O’Neill, with beaming smiles holding a sign saying, ‘The North is Next.’ The sign was a reference to the lack of reproductive rights available to women in the north, which was soon to be introduced in the Republic.
Things were soon to change there too when in 2019 Westminster MPs moved to expand access to abortion services while Sinn Féin and the DUP were unable to form a devolved government. While full services are not yet in place some early abortion services are in place up to 10 weeks of pregnancy and the UK government are moving to compel Stormont to implement the full laws passed in 2019.
Events in Stormont have been under sharp focus recently as a DUP bill that seeks to amend the law in Northern Ireland to prevent abortions in cases of non-fatal disabilities passed during the week. Despite Sinn Féin claiming they want greater access to abortion services in Northern Ireland, they abstained on the vote allowing it to pass to committee stage, prompting widespread backlash.
Former Sinn Féin TD, now Aontú leader Peadar Tóibín claimed the party was ‘speaking out of both sides of their mouth’ on the issue, while former People Before Profit MLA Eamon McCann criticised the party for sitting on the fence when it comes to abortion legislation.
It remains to be seen where the fight for reproductive rights in Northern Ireland will go next. The DUP vehemently oppose any widespread access up north. The rhetoric from the first minister of Northern Ireland, Arlene Foster, has been sharp. During a debate on the bill, she claimed that the issue of abortion was entering the ‘area of eugenics.’ Clearly, divisions are strong and with the latest abstention from Sinn Féin, the direction of abortion laws are still uncertain.
While it may be making fewer headlines in the Republic, the abortion debate is also not settled here. The removal of abortion laws from the constitution, following the repeal of the 8th, has put the responsibility for legislating for the issue on TDs. Therefore, at any time, the loosening of abortion restrictions since the referendum could be undone in the Oireachtas.
In fact, earlier this month health minister, Stephen Donnelly, briefed the cabinet on his review into the State’s abortion legislation. This is due to a review clause being included in the 2018 Health Act which gave us our current abortion laws.
There are already TDs and senators in the Oireachtas who are gearing up for the review. Last December an all-party group of anti-abortion TDs was set up called the ‘Oireachtas Life and Dignity Group.’ Former Sinn Féin, now independent TD, Carol Nolan said the group was ‘initiating discussions on the issue and down the road certainly there would be amendments tabled.’
While the abortion debate has been thrown back into the headlines in Northern Ireland, it will soon be up for consideration down south. The abortion issue has always been a hotly contested political topic and that looks to remain to be the case on the entire island of Ireland well into the future.
Conor Paterson – Features Editor