Northern Ireland is now leading the way on women's rights – the rest of the UK must follow suit

Rose Stokes
Getty Images
Getty Images

At midnight last night, legislation came into effect in Northern Ireland lifting a ban on abortion that had been in place for 158 years.

As a result, women and girls in the country can now have an abortion without fear of being prosecuted. This also means that medical professionals performing the procedure are no longer at risk of being charged with a criminal offence. Police will no longer be able to investigate cases relating to termination of a pregnancy, and all current cases will be dropped.

The development has rightly been hailed by many as a huge — albeit long overdue — marker of progress for women’s rights in Northern Ireland, coming into law alongside legislation to allow marriage equality for LGBTQ+ people in the country. It is a giant leap towards equality in a country that has long been trailing behind the rest of the United Kingdom on these issues.

But the move has also highlighted the current laws around abortion in England and Wales which are not fit for purpose and are in need of urgent reform. Despite the fact that the 1967 Abortion Act made it legal to have an abortion in England, Scotland and Wales, it fell short of decriminalising the act of performing or receiving treatment to terminate a pregnancy, and was heavily caveated with conditions that both the patient and the medical profession must comply with in order to avoid prosecution.

This is because it modified the existing legislation, known as the Offences Against the Person Act (OAPA) from 1861, rather than replacing it.

Roughly translated, this means that failure to secure the signatures of two medical practitioners before terminating a pregnancy in England and Wales could technically result in prosecution for both parties, potentially carrying a life sentence (in Scotland the issue was devolved to its own parliament in 2016) . Essentially, this hands the decision over whether or not an abortion can take place to the hands of medical professionals, rather than the woman in question. It also makes this the only routine medical procedure in the UK that requires legal authorisation in addition to patient consent.

If we have learned anything from the past few years of global political shifts, it is that progress on equality is fragile, particularly during times of great uncertainty. The rise to prominence of many far-right political parties and leaders in the West, and their subsequent success at the ballots has underscored that consensus on issues related to equal rights — and particularly womens’ rights — is far from a reality. In the US, under the leadership of Donald Trump, we’ve seen how quickly regressive abortion rhetoric can be translated into political manouevring, and the damaging impact that this has on the rights of women in the country.

In England, Scotland and Wales, on a practical level, women have been able to access abortion relatively freely since the 1967 Act, which means that fewer women die as a result of illegal back-street abortions, and that we have more control over our bodies and what happens to them in the event of an unplanned pregnancy. It would not be an exaggeration to say that this completely changed the game for women’s rights in this country. But it has also meant that the issue of decriminalisation has fallen down the list of priorities, as convictions are incredibly rare — although not unheard of.

We are living in unpredictable times. In the UK, as the spectre of Brexit looms large and we begin the process of disentangling our own legal system from the EU’s, it’s impossible to predict how our existing rights and laws will be affected.

Regardless, women deserve the right to decide what happens with their own bodies uncontested. This is a fact that should be comprehensively protected through rigorous legislation – legislation that cannot be reversed or overturned with a change of leadership or at the whim of those with the power to do so.

There should be no loopholes, no caveats, no ifs, no buts. That is the only way that we can guarantee that these rights will be protected. We can no longer take progress for granted. Northern Ireland is leading the way towards a system that values women’s choice and respects their rights over their bodies. It’s time for England and Wales to follow suit.