A huge day of change for Northern Ireland, as abortion is decriminalised and same-sex marriage finally becomes legal #theNorthisNow

At midnight on 21st October in Northern Ireland, human rights activists celebrated as abortion was decriminalised and same-sex marriage became legal in the country for the first time. This is a moment of huge transition, as for centuries the law in NI has been dominated by strictly religious Roman Catholic values, despite the fact that it is part of the UK.

This monumental change comes as a default, after Westminster voted for Northern Ireland’s legislation to come into alignment with the UK Abortion Act of 1967, which has protected the right to a termination in England, Scotland and Wales for the past 50 years. In July, British MP’s voted overwhelmingly (and swiftly, with both decisions taking just fifteen minutes) in favour of changing both the laws surrounding abortion and same-sex marriage, ensuring the new legislation would come into place if the currently defunct Northern Ireland government (Stormont) was not restored by 21st October – which is was not. 

Therefore in a strangely calm, countdown-style scenario, pro-choice activists in groups such as Alliance for Choice simply watched the clock until midnight, when the changes that they have tirelessly campaigned for finally came to fruition. This particular group has been extremely vocal in pushing for the decriminalisation of abortion, sharing the stories of those who have been punished and persecuted for buying abortion pills online (one of the only ways those in Northern Ireland have been able to terminate pregnancies without crossing over to England for the procedure). Such stories include the 21-year-old woman who was recently given a suspended prison sentence after her housemates alerted authorities to the fact that she had bought miscarriage-inducing medications online, and the prosecution of a mother who supplied her teenage daughter with similar drugs after an abusive relationship resulted in the girl becoming pregnant. 

Over two-thirds of surveyed Northern Irish people said that they were in favour of the right to choose, and against the criminalisation of abortion. Up until now (and for the next few months, while the law comes into effect) those seeking abortions have had to travel across the Irish Sea to British clinics to avoid prosecution – both of themselves and those carrying out the procedure. Soon, Northern Irish doctors will be given new training and two NI hospitals will carry out terminations (with buffer sites around the facilities to prevent protestors from obstructing access). 

Whilst there is a minority of Northern Irish people who disagree with the changes, there is an overwhelming sense of relief and celebration for many, who see the altered legislation as a huge success for human rights. 

“We are witnessing one of the most radical movements of contemporary feminism of this century. The cases for reproductive rights and bodily autonomy are inextricably linked to the fight for marriage equality and LGBTQ+ rights, a shared mission for freedom and choice” wrote Belfast-born journalist Anna Cafolla in the Guardian. Same-sex couples will be now be able to give the required 28 days of notice that they want to marry as of 13th January 2020, when the new law will be finalised, meaning that the first same-sex marriages in Northern Ireland are expected to happen, somewhat appropriately, in the week of Valentine’s Day. 

 

Guest post by Georgina Langford-Biss

Featured image sourced from BBC News

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