In Northern Ireland (NI), this exceptionalism is evident in landmark developments to improve access, as well as in concerns over obstructions to services.
Abortion law reform
Abortion in NI was decriminalized by the U.K. government in October 2019. This achievement followed a prolonged activist campaign, court cases, an inquiry by the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and an inquiry by the U.K. parliament’s Women and Equalities Committee, as well as persistent efforts by English parliamentarians, including Stella Creasy.
Creasy advocated for improved access to abortion for women and pregnant people in NI following activist intervention in 2017. Availing of every parliamentary opportunity to highlight the issue since then, the campaign achieved success in July 2019, when an amendment to the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 (NIACT-2019) was passed by parliament with a considerable cross-party majority (332 in favor; 99 against).
This intervention occurred during a 3 year suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly. During this suspension, national and international inquiries concluded that limited access to abortion constituted grave and systematic violations of women’s’ rights.
Whilst the NIACT-2019 favored Assembly-led reform in a restored administration, it included a sunset clause to avoid further delays in redressing rights violations. This clause stated that should the Assembly not be restored by October 21st, 2019, abortion would be decriminalized. The deadline passed without restoration of the Assembly, and the UK parliament made the historic move to introduce decriminalization and implement recommendations from the CEDAW inquiry. The focus then shifted to the regulations that would govern decriminalization.
The Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2020 were published in mid-March 2020, just days before they were intended to go into effect. The regulations were broadly welcomed by those in support of decriminalization. Access to abortion up to 12 weeks was allowed without exception; thereafter conditions were applied. However, the regulations failed to consider establishing buffer zones around clinics and penalizing health professionals who failed to follow the regulations, two problematic omissions that both contravened the CEDAW recommendations.
In the shadow of COVID-19, the implementation of the regulations by the Department of Health Northern Ireland (DOHNI) was stalled. Unlike the rest of the U.K. and the Republic of Ireland, the Health Minister refused to introduce telemedicine abortion services, thus contradicting WHO best practice advice during COVID-19. Further proposed contraventions include a requirement that the Executive Committee (ministerial group) approve the commissioning of abortion services.
Despite the absence of Ministerial approval, interim services have begun. Providers in sexual health clinics whose normal schedule of clinics had been suspended due to COVID-19, pivoted to providing early medical abortion (EMA) up until 9 weeks, 6 days gestation. Within the first two months of being operational 350 women utilized the EMA service. Services for 10+ week gestations are offered, although not within all of the five health care trusts.
The absence of public information from the Department of Health of Northern Ireland means many need to rely on internet searches for information, which might lead individuals to the webpages of the activist group Alliance for Choice, but which could also lead to anti-abortion organizations masquerading as pregnancy crisis centers, which have similar counterparts in the U.S.
The U.S. influence
A broad U.S. influence is evidenced in NI within the anti-abortion movement. High profile campaigners and political leaders travel to the U.S. to meet with anti-abortion organizations, and often mirror their messaging in campaign and political discourses. It is anticipated that the anti-abortion movement in NI will seek to bring in U.S. style restrictions to curtail access to abortion. For now, though, the recent Supreme Court decision June Medical Services v. Russo serves as a counter to such efforts.
In contrast to the negativity of anti-abortion groups, several U.S. reproductive health organizations have engaged with stakeholders in NI to share knowledge and practice. Inroads, a global organization which seeks to end abortion stigma, provides an innovative platform for activists, providers, and academics to network. Small grant support is also available to enhance global partnerships, which include programs for women with disabilities and abortion doula services.
The importance of world-wide networks of grassroots organizers and experts in the field is clear during a concerted global pushback on hard-won rights, and especially in the time of COVID-19.
Dr. Fiona Bloomer is Senior Lecturer in Social Policy at Ulster University, Northern Ireland.