A large majority of Northern Ireland’s population are in favour of reforming the region’s strict anti-abortion laws and back legal terminations for women made pregnant through sexual violence, a new survey has found.
Nearly 80% of the public in the region believe abortion should be legal when a woman has become pregnant as a result of rape or incest, according to the latest Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey.
The public attitudes survey, regarded as one of the most accurate barometers of social option in the region, also found that 73% of those polled think abortion should be legal in local hospitals in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities – that is when if a pregnancy goes full term the baby will be born dead or die shortly after birth.
Amnesty International, which has been campaigning for abortion reform in Northern Ireland, said these latest findings show there is overwhelming support for liberalising the anti-abortion regime in the province.
Grainne Teggart, Amnesty’s campaign manager in Northern Ireland, said: “Not only do a huge majority of people in Northern Ireland want to see abortion made available to women and girls in the tragic circumstances of sexual crime or fatal foetal diagnosis, but we know from a previous Amnesty survey that they also want to see abortion decriminalised and dealt with through healthcare policy.”
She added: “Abortion is a healthcare and human rights issue. It is high time the law was changed in line with the overwhelming wishes of the public. Then women would no longer have to travel to England for an abortion and they and their medical carers would no longer be treated as potential criminals. Politicians in Northern Ireland and at Westminster must heed this demand for change.”
Many Northern Ireland politicians, including the Democratic Unionist party, who have been thrust into the role of potential kingmakers in Theresa May’s minority Conservative administration, oppose any liberalisation of the abortion laws. Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK where the 1967 Abortion Act does not apply.
This has resulted in thousands of women and girls having to travel to Britain for terminations in private clinics. Earlier this week the supreme court in London ruled against a mother and daughter from Northern Ireland who had wanted to establish the right to have a free abortion in an English NHS hospital.
Abortions in Northern Ireland’s hospitals are only available to women and girls where their life or health is in grave danger; only 23 were carried out in 2013-14.
The author of the report, Ann-Marie Gray, who is professor of Social Policy at Ulster University and policy director of the Access Knowledge Research institute, said: “Northern Ireland currently has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world. Women who are viewed as infringing these laws and those who assist them are subject to harsh criminal penalties.
“These findings, based on the views of a representative sample of the Northern Ireland public, show that abortion legislation in Northern Ireland is out of step with public opinion. There is very strong support for changes to the law in cases where the life or the health of the pregnant woman is at risk, in cases of fatal and serious foetal abnormality and where a pregnancy is a result of rape or incest.”
Attempts by the former Northern Ireland justice minister David Ford to bring in limited abortion reform and allow for terminations in the case of fatal foetal abnormalities have been vetoed by the combined votes of the DUP, some of the Ulster Unionist party and members of the Social Democratic and Labour party. In 2015 Sinn Féin changed its policy to support abortions in both parts of Ireland in cases of fatal foetal abnormality.
A number of Northern Irish women are facing prosecution over procuring abortion pills from pro-choice charities via the internet. In March on International Women’s Day the Police Service of Northern Ireland raided two premises searching for abortion pills, including a workshop belonging to pro-choice Belfast campaigner Helen Crickard. No pills were found but Crickard said she felt “violated and humiliated” over the raid in the south of the city.
In 2016, a 21-year-old woman was given a suspended prison sentence for buying drugs online to induce a miscarriage. She had been reported by her flatmates after they found out she had taken the abortion pills.
A mother is facing prosecution for procuring abortion pills for her then underage daughter.